The Contraception Post…

Eamonn Clark, STL

People say that the Church is “obsessed with sex.” This is only half-true. People are obsessed with sex, and the Church is obsessed with people. Given that the great majority of souls which are lost carry sexual sins with them, and are even lost on account of those sins, it is worth addressing here one of the more common kinds of such wrongdoing – the use of contraception.

In this post, I will explain the following items:

  1. The difference between natural and unnatural sexual vice
  2. The moral significance of unnatural vice, especially contraception
  3. Why periodic continence (“NFP”) is not contraception
  4. The effects of contraception on the individual soul
  5. The effects of contraception on marriages
  6. The effects of contraception on society
  7. The effects of certain contraceptives on one’s physical health
  8. The infallible character of the Church’s teaching on contraception
  9. How to confess the use of contraception
  10. Remedies for those struggling with contraception

Hopefully, this will be a helpful guide for couples, married or unmarried, and for clergy who are responsible for teaching, preaching, and counseling on these important matters. As you can tell by the length, it is thorough.

The difference between natural and unnatural sexual vice

In moral theology, an act is called “natural” if it aligns with the God-given purpose of a particular faculty which one possesses. For example, it would be natural to communicate the truth by speaking to another through signs or symbols. The faculty of communication is ordered towards this end – we have the gift of the power to express thoughts through language in order to pursue the truth in a community. If this gift is reordered to undermine the pursuit of truth, it is called lying. Lying is an unnatural act, a perversion of the order found in the faculty of communication. We have the capability to use language precisely so that we can express what is in our mind; thus, every lie, which distorts this, is a sin, however slight it may be in some cases. (Deceptive language is its own separate discussion requiring some distinctions – I did a post on this a while ago. But we will return to this analogy with language later.)

Another example is digestion. Something like what one sees in that scene at the party in Hunger Games 2 is a kind of perversion… Eat until you’re full, then make yourself throw up so you can go on eating – it is about the pleasures of the experience to the exclusion of fulfilling the purpose of the faculty being used. In fact, one guarantees that the purpose of the faculty will not be achieved by an act of the will which interrupts the order itself. In this case, one is taking food out of oneself which is suitable for consumption, simply for the pleasures of having more food. With dishonest communication, one is using words which do not signify what is in one’s mind to deceive another.

The power to reproduce is also a faculty. The sexual organs are not body parts with a wide range of legitimate uses, unlike the hand or the foot. There is a clear purpose for them, without which they would not make any biological sense. Nature would not provide organs which are merely there for useless pleasures. Just as communication benefits the community and individual as rational, and just as the digestive faculty benefits the individual as physical, so too does the sexual faculty benefit the community as physical. Eating keeps the body alive, reproduction keeps the human race alive. The former is important, but the latter is even more important.

Natural sexual vice (“natural vice” from here on out) is therefore easily distinguished from unnatural sexual vice (“unnatural vice”). Natural vice is the sort which is not a use of the sexual faculty whereby reproduction is essentially impeded by an act of the will. Unnatural vice is the opposite – something is intentionally done whereby the sexual faculty is integrally unable to achieve its fundamental purpose, namely, the conception of new human life.

Natural vice essentially reduces to extramarital relations. Various characteristics which have a special quality in relation to reason change the act from being mere fornication to being adultery (marriage), rape (violence), sacrilege (consecrated person), incest (family relation), and so on. This kind of act is seriously immoral principally on account of the danger to the potential child, who is owed the stability of a father and mother committed to each other for life. This evil is compounded by whatever special harm is done due to other circumstances.

Unnatural vice includes all those sorts of sexual acts which of themselves, according to their character, cannot produce a child. This includes masturbation, homosexual activity, immoderate/dishonest foreplay (or similar behavior), and contraceptive activity. It also includes more “extreme” behaviors, such as zoophilia (animals) and necrophilia (corpses) – which are perhaps more common vices than people might think, especially among certain populations.

Pedophilia is its own strange phenomenon which sits somewhat in between unnatural and natural vice as a condition, but as an act it is either unnatural due to its homosexual character or is simply a particularly bad kind of natural vice if it be heterosexual. This is notwithstanding the fact of the infertility of a child – infertility is an accidental characteristic of the act, not an essential one, as will be explored more below.

It is true that some factors outside of one’s control could contribute to desires to engage in unnatural vice, especially the way one is raised and educated in morals. Anyone who struggles with unnatural vice – which is the vast majority of adults in the developed world – is called to repentance and reform. When deliberately indulged in by those who basically understand what the sexual faculty is (i.e. not small children or those with severe mental illness), unnatural vice is mortal sin, thus excluding one from the life of grace and ultimately from Heaven should one fail to repent adequately before death. These people are, nonetheless, still to be treated as human beings who are loved by Christ; this is, of course, why they are called to repentance and reform in the first place. Those who have an abnormally strong and persistent drive towards entirely perverse matter (i.e. persons of the same sex, animals, corpses, etc.) must recognize that this is a cross which they must take up and carry. They cannot licitly act on this desire, ever.

Unnatural vice is categorically more perverse sexual activity, and thus worse as sexual sin, than natural vice, despite individual acts in the latter category being potentially worse as sins. (For instance, a married man forcibly violating his sister who is a nun would rightly be seen as a worse sin than a 14-year-old boy abusing himself as a result of a pornography addiction.) The reason unnatural vice is worse overall as sexual vice is that it entirely reorders the sexual faculty away from its God-given purpose. In natural vice, there is some element that is not a characteristic of the sexual act itself which renders the act immoral; in other words, it is something “not sexual” that makes this sexual act a sin.

The moral significance of unnatural vice, especially contraception

There seems to be a general sense among Westerners that we are all basically okay. Christianity teaches us that this is not true – actually, we are all basically broken. Understanding the significance of original sin is the key to understanding the reality of personal sin. One must know the bad news of our helplessness in the face of sin and death – and the subsequent fairness of eternal damnation – in order to contextualize the Good News of the possibility of new life in Christ, and thus the need for redemption in the first place. It does not seem that Our Lord is optimistic about the possibility of the great majority of people saving their souls. Quite the opposite, in fact: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

This point helps us to orient the conversation around discipleship, which is always a conscious choice. The developed world actively urges lifestyles and values which are utterly opposed to the dictates of the Gospels. Unnatural vice is one of the big ones.

True, very few people have a tolerance for the more extreme behaviors listed, but by sanctioning behaviors in the same genus they can no longer reasonably condemn the related species. What they have left is mere emotional revulsion. It makes no sense to argue that contraception or sodomy is acceptable but that fooling around with a dog is not, unless one reduces the question entirely to the realm of active rational consent. This reduction involves a complete rejection of the principle that the precise part of human nature at issue informs the morality of its use, which in turn calls into question the role of human nature in general as a foundation for understanding all morality; that is to say, if morality is just about consent in regard to sexual matters, why is consent not the basis for all morality? This is a broader and deeper discussion than can be had here in detail, but suffice it to say that God creates us, including our bodies, with powers for particular purposes, and those purposes are the way we pursue flourishing, so long as they are subjected to and rightly ordered toward higher goods of the intellect and will (viz., the pursuit of truth and friendship). Human nature teaches us how to be happy, with the desires of our lower powers being at the service of our higher powers, not the other way around. We can obviously consent to bad things being done to us – for instance, we can consent to be killed by another.

Unnatural vice, including contraception, reorders a great gift of God away from the purpose for which God designed it. Imagine a father who gives his son a very expensive new car. The son is very happy to have the car. He puts it in neutral and then pushes it off a cliff. He thought to himself, “I just want to see how it would fall and crash. It gave me pleasure. And it’s my car, so I can do what I want with it.” The father would undoubtedly be very offended at such an abuse of the gift he gave to his son, no? That’s because he gave his son that gift for a particular purpose – to drive around in, not to push it off a cliff.

The stakes are indeed much higher when it comes to human generation, and the One Who gives the gift is the Almighty Creator. To abuse the sexual faculty for its associated pleasures is like pushing the car off the cliff, but much, much worse: the car is just about the son’s personal flourishing, while the sexual faculty is not only about our personal flourishing but also about the continued existence of humanity.

No doubt, other people will be having kids, and the practitioner of unnatural vice may also eventually procreate. This is sometimes presented as a counter-argument. There are several problems with this. First, this sidesteps the primary problem, which is that a faculty is being perverted. It does no good to protest that other sons will drive cars given by their fathers, or that he can carpool, or that he can buy another car – this car was given to this son by his father, and it was given to this son to drive. Second, unnatural vice spreads by social contagion and has accompanying bad effects in society. We will explore this more later.

Unlike with a vice like autoeroticism (and then only to some degree), no excuse can be made in terms of a lack of deliberation in the use of contraception. Taking the proper understanding of “how babies are made” for granted, the use of any sort of contraceptive implies an understanding of what one is doing vis-à-vis the sexual faculty: voluntary sterilization. There is likewise always some delay between the intention of the sexual act and the administering of a contraceptive. Given that one is necessarily aware of the character of one’s action, and that there is always some time to deliberate, it follows that there is never a time when the consensual use of contraception is not mortal sin for both parties. (The case of someone who does not consent to his or her spouse’s use of contraception is different, as Pius XI explains in Casti Connubii, 59 – one can consent to the sexual act without consenting to any artificial impediments to its fertility.)

Why periodic continence (“NFP”) is not contraception

There is a natural rhythm of fertility and infertility in women, and eventually they become infertile. Men, on the other hand, are always fertile unless there is a serious problem with their health. Not long after this was properly understood (around the mid-1800’s) there has been an openness on the part of the Church toward allowing for the use of infertile times in a woman’s cycle to enjoy sexual union and simultaneously to avoid the possibility of having children. This takes for granted that there is both a legitimate reason to avoid having children and a legitimate reason to engage in relations, presumably beyond mere recreation but more so because it is truly needed or is lawfully requested by one’s spouse (a contestable point which I will explore at length at a later date).

The objection is laid down: this amounts to contraception. Instead of using a barrier or a chemical to restrict insemination or ovulation, one simply guarantees infertility by using timing.

The normal response is that the use of periodic continence, or natural family planning (NFP), to avoid conception is that it uses the natural rhythm of the woman and therefore does not constitute a violation of the natural order of procreation. It is not contraceptive to not have relations during some times and to have relations during other times.

This is true, but it is somewhat vague and does not address the underlying suspicion about the intention being the same, namely, to presume upon infertility as a condition for having relations. It is better to point out also that not wanting the faculty to achieve its end and simultaneously predicting its failure to do so is different from intentionally and artificially guaranteeing sterility by removing something natural to the faculty and its organs (i.e. a hysterectomy in view of sterilization) or by adding something which is foreign to that system (i.e. a barrier). In this case, the matter or means of sexual activity is rendered unfit by an act of the will – what was the right object of sexual action is now made improper due to the subversion of that matter’s purpose by the one acting upon it or using it. In other words, everything works rightly in periodic continence: sometimes she is fertile, and sometimes she is not, and it is not immoral to want things to work the way they are meant to. This is very much like what is called a “broad mental reservation,” wherein someone tells a truth hoping to deceive, due to some reasonable motive. This is not a lie – as intentionally telling the truth is not lying. In the contraceptive act, something is made not to work rightly. It’s the “making something not work rightly” while using that thing’s system which makes contraception immoral and leaves periodic continence as a legitimate option. Contraception, then, as we have seen, is like lying. And while some truths are unimportant to communicate, human life does not admit of degrees of importance in the same way – it is always serious.

There are potential misuses of NFP – I alluded to two possible cases (unjustified avoidance of children, merely recreational sexual activity) – but there is only venial sin here. While still immoral, and certainly an occasion of worse sin, it will not kill the soul or be likely of itself to introduce terrible disorders into a marriage or into society. NFP, by the way, can and should also be used as a tool to try to conceive.

The effects of unnatural vice in the individual soul

We naturally have a strong desire to propagate our own species, just like plants and animals. This is outdone only by the natural desire for self-preservation, through eating and shelter and self-defense. But the guilt and stain of original sin is transmitted by physical generation from one human to another. It seems that, as a fitting consequence, we are driven to sexual sin more vehemently than to other sins… it’s almost like original sin is a virus that wants to propagate itself through a manifestation of its effects, just like sneezing or coughing. However, unlike a virus and more like a parasite, original sin is also comfortable with simply afflicting its host. The viral paradigm corresponds to natural vice, and the parasitic paradigm corresponds to unnatural vice.

A virus can certainly kill its subject. But it’s sort of “just business,” as viruses are only quasi-living entities. A parasite kills in a more disturbing way – almost as if it’s personal. It’s a hunter, and you are the prey. Like a parasite, original sin starts to eat away at the interior life of a person engaged in unnatural vice (or any other vice, except natural vice). And it grows stronger as the host grows weaker, like a tapeworm adding new sections over time.

The “daughters of lust” are eight in number. Four afflict the intellect: blindness of mind, rashness, thoughtlessness, and inconstancy. These relate, respectively, to the perception of an end as good, a lack of due consideration of the means to attain the end, a lack of judgment about the rightness of the means, and the mind’s command to carry out the means. Four afflict the will: self-love, hatred of God, love of the world, despair of the next life. These correspond respectively to the end concerned (conversion towards oneself and away from God) and the means (this world, which removes thought of the future world). The worse the vice, the stronger the daughters. Unnatural vice is categorically a worse vice, as it is a worse perversion of human sexuality in itself. Therefore, the daughters will be stronger in the one afflicted by unnatural vice than one who simply fornicates and risks having many children out of wedlock.

The individual who is willing to use contraception is much more likely to be promiscuous. This goes without saying… it’s sort of the whole point, for the single person.

The effects of contraception on marriage

Certainly, not everything which follows will apply to every marriage, but most of what follows applies to most marriages to some degree. Each individual, and therefore each marriage, is unique. Reception is according to the mode of the receiver… Unnatural vice will have different effects in each relationship, but these are some general tendencies which leap out at me.

From the outset, we must insist that marriage is primarily about raising a family to be virtuous members of society and to teach them to glorify God. It is not merely about personal psychological fulfillment – one’s psychology is disordered if it is not seeking God’s glory in all things, after all. Marriage fundamentally exists as a natural office wherein new citizens are raised to be good men and women, and members of the family learn to become saints through the edification and assistance received from each other. This is the point, and it is certainly something one ought to take psychological pleasure in.

The first effect is a diminished need, and subsequently a diminished capacity due to a lack of practice, for meaningful communication. She no longer needs to bother to say that it’s that time of the month – which means that more serious conversations don’t need to be had about one’s needs and desires in relation to the prospect of welcoming another child. Over time, many opportunities are missed for growing in the skills to sift through these challenging topics which touch on every element of a couple’s life together. As a result, over time the communication skills of the couple will be less than what they could be, and they might even be quite emaciated.

The second effect follows from the first, which is a decrease in intimacy. This will often begin with a lack of emotional intimacy and eventually a lack of physical intimacy expressing those absent emotions. Without the need for good, strong communication about the most important things in the couple’s life, they have less need to be vulnerable with each other. This can create a coolness, or at least a kind of shallowness, which is often intractable and can be extremely damaging in the long run.

The third effect follows from the second, which is a selfish objectification of the other. In denying generosity with God in the act which is naturally ordered towards creating new human life, the most powerful thing a person can naturally do, one turns in the great gift of human sexuality in on oneself. Spouses then use each other as tools for pleasures according to their own mind. This may be limited at first to the bedroom, but if what is most powerful and important can be subverted in order to be turned to one’s own temporal desires, it stands to reason that lesser things can be manipulated as well. The spouse becomes merely the tool to get what one wants. In the midst of the pursuit of selfish designs, one forgets that it is the search for God within and together with one’s spouse in the service of one’s family and society which rightly motivates marriage in the first place.

The fourth effect also follows from the second, and it is boredom. This could be emotional or social boredom, and with time it will almost definitely include boredom with each other’s bodies. After all, there has been so little need for restraint that all the psychological mystery of the sexual encounter is entirely gone, together with the intimacy which surrounds it and makes it positively meaningful. The couple gets too sexually accustomed to each other.

The fifth effect, more general in nature and usually only present in the long-term, is regret. We do not often encounter people who regret the children they had, but we do encounter people who regret the children they did not have. What preoccupies people at their deathbed are chiefly two things: their soul, and their family. They may fret over both, or they may be consoled. But a family that doesn’t exist brings neither fear nor consolation to the one who withheld their procreative power in favor of minding pets and taking luxurious vacations; it brings emptiness and pain. Even before the deathbed, one’s old age can be very lonely indeed. Was chasing those pleasures really worth the awful feeling of wasting away, of being abandoned and forgotten, especially if the other effects I’ve mentioned have accrued and become fully mature? Those who do have at least some children who pause to consider it will likely admit that in fact the pleasures now of being visited by their children and watching them become parents and so on is much more enjoyable than any other achievement or experience in their life – and if they go the step further in reasoning, they will almost always admit that they cut themselves short by not having more children.

The sixth effect is the delay or rejection of marriage between a couple. Why bother? After all, it is easier to cohabit and just “wait and see.” The social effects of cohabitation are that an unrealistic perception of the other is cultivated – it’s a “try out.” It turns out that playing house is not the same as marriage and starting a family. The data is not actually as clear as one might think on the relationship between cohabitation and divorce, but studies have generally found them to be correlated positively. More research is needed, perhaps with more precision as to demographics. However, promiscuity in general is wildly positively correlative to divorce rates, though there are some oddities in those numbers which are difficult to explain. Yet such promiscuity is no doubt engaged in so widely due to the availability of contraception.

The final effect, a kind of summation and completion of the foregoing, is divorce, which, by American data, is about 50% more likely among couples who never practice periodic continence but have recourse instead exclusively to contraception. This statistic does not evaluate couples who have never used contraception, and it does not take into account the decline of marriage in general.

The effects of contraception on society

Clearly, the effects on the couple themselves are also effects on society, but there are more directly “social” effects outside the pair themselves.

The first effect is a kind of entitlement toward having children. If one sees no problem with blocking the production of new life, as if one is the master over it rather than God, then it follows that one may easily come to see having children as a right which exceeds the demands of the natural order of their production. This is made manifest in the use of artificial means of conception, such as IVF and surrogacy, wherein the child is treated as property, or like a pet, which one purchases rather than receives as a free gift from God. Over time, this attitude seeps into the way that children are treated in society, namely, as “projects” of their “owners,” rather than individuals with their own eternal souls which have an ordering for them preordained by God. Hence, we see little to no meaningful moral education on the part of schools. However, given the depravity of the current Western understanding of morals, especially in certain areas, perhaps makes it better that public moral education is minimal.

In fact, this general moral depravity is itself the second effect. In Humanae Vitae, St. Paul VI predicted four effects of contraception, one of which we have already examined (increased objectification, in particular the objectification of women). He also predicted a lowering of moral standards in general (obviously correct), and a more widespread use of forced sterilization (Google “forced sterilization” and “[country/region]”). He additionally predicted that marital infidelity would skyrocket. And so it was that shortly after the advent of “the pill,” starting in earnest after Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the United States saw the rise of “no-fault” divorce (starting in 1970). If sex doesn’t have to mean the possibility of babies, then the permanence of marriage is without any objective foundation, as that permanence is primarily for the sake of potential and actual children. Rather, marriage is then at the service merely of one’s own psychological fulfillment. Not long after no-fault divorce, we had Roe v. Wade (1973). Well, the fact is that sometime contraception fails, and the “problem” needs to be dealt with so that one’s psychological fulfillment (“dreams”) can continue to be pursued. In the ultimate avoidance of the responsibility to suffer for the sake of another, we were tricked into thinking that there is no such thing as human nature and so the unborn child is simply a “private” matter. The maturation of the next step took a while, it is granted, though there were already motions towards it in the late 1960’s. This is the so-called “gay rights” movement, achieving its latest major victory with Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). If there is no intrinsic need to bother with the risk of children in sex, and there is perhaps not even human nature but rather just “privacy” and psychological fulfillment, then it is not only unclear why marriage should be permanent, but it is also unclear why our biology should matter at all for the use of sex or even the contracting of marriage. And finally, we see today the most recent link in the chain, which is the rejection of the reality of our sexual biology in its entirety: transgenderism. If our biological sex isn’t relevant to how we have sex, then maybe there is not really such a thing as biological sex, or maybe it is just not significant at all. Perhaps this is the end, perhaps it will go further, or in different directions, such as into the normalization of polyamory, as I have already explored in another post. I think that is the most likely route.

The third effect is the dumbing down of public discourse. This follows from the descent into moral depravity. Since the behaviors society tolerates and promotes become more and more obviously indefensible through reason, the use of force, whether social, legal, or physical, is required to protect those behaviors from becoming taboo or illegal once again. The reduction of the quality and depth of public discourse is also is a product of the daughters of lust, as explained above. The mind and will are turned away from the true and the good and can’t even really perceive this – so what is there to talk about, really, except the trivial things of life?

The fourth effect is, in fact, demographic winters. A cursory glance at the changes in birth rate in first world nations over the past few decades should be enough to convince one of the fact. It turns out that, when unnatural vice is treated as acceptable, the existence of the human race, at least in a given sovereign territory, can be threatened. Yes, it is more complex than this, but, to take an extreme example, it can’t honestly be denied that if Japan or South Korea didn’t have contraceptives they would not be teetering on a demographic cliff. China might be heading in the same direction – so too might the USA.

The effects of certain contraceptives on one’s physical health

I am a moral scientist, not a medical scientist, but here I will offer a few points which are well-established, with links to sources with more information, on the effects of some oral contraceptives can tend to have on women. It is true that permanent sterility is not an effect of oral contraception, but other items one might want to consider include:

  • An increased likelihood of some cancers
  • Gingivitis
  • “Lady problems”
  • Instability of weight (loss or gain)
  • Decreased attractiveness (yes, really – see below)
  • Manipulation of mood
  • Decreased libido (nature’s sense of irony)
  • Various gastro-intestinal problems (diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, etc.)
  • Other severe (albeit rare) issues

I highly recommend listening to this excellent talk by Janet Smith on contraception, which includes a discussion of the shocking and scientifically well-established fact that oral contraceptives make women unconsciously less subjectively attractive (this part starts around 27 minutes into the talk) – and it even warps their perception about the attractiveness of men. Aphrodisiacs are perhaps not real, but pheromones are.

The infallible character of the Church’s teaching on contraception

Humanae Vitae was published in 1969, a year after the onset of the “sexual revolution” began. Its primary teaching was of course that the use of contraception (as contraception) is always immoral. Ever since the publication of Humanae Vitae, there has been an argument made that the document is not infallible, and so the teaching contained therein is also not infallible. It is a remarkable fact that St. Paul VI judged the way he did, given that the overwhelming majority of bishops advising him on the issue were opposed to his conclusion. (Two notable exceptions included the Ven. Fulton Sheen and Bishop Karol Wojtyła, the future St. John Paul II.) By what is best explained as a movement of the Holy Spirit, in favor of the protection of the Pontiff from error in such a weighty matter now being so hotly contested, Paul VI judged against the majority and in favor of the extremely unpopular minority. Perhaps not since St. Athanasius had there been such a moment.

It is true that the encyclical genre, into which Humanae Vitae clearly falls, is not usually considered to be infallible unless otherwise evident. However, one would hardly conclude that encyclicals cannot contain truths which are already part of the infallible and subsequently irreformable doctrine of the Church, such as teaching that God is a Trinity, or that the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always evil. The teaching of Humanae Vitae on the intrinsic immorality of contraception belongs to this kind of teaching.

We have already seen the natural foundations of the immorality of contraception, beginning with the character of the act itself as a species of unnatural vice and exploring also the various bad effects which the habit tends to have on individuals, couples, and society. We could add to this a firm basis in Scripture, most notably in the case of Onan, who spilled his seed on the ground instead of raising up children for his deceased brother and was slain by God as a result. (Genesis 38:8-10) The teaching of Paul VI finds immediate support in nearly contemporary magisterial literature in Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii, which rendered an identical judgment. Pius XI quotes St. Augustine on the question in defense of his own position, and many other major authorities could be brought forward as well, including St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Jerome, St. Caesarius of Arles, St. John Chrysostom, and others. One will in fact find no support for the liceity of contraception among any such author.

Other than abortion (and maybe capital punishment), it would be difficult to find a moral teaching more universal than on the immorality of unnatural vice, which contraception is clearly part of. (By the way, contraceptives of various kinds have been around and well-known for thousands of years.) Therefore, supposing that the ordinary universal magisterium of the Church possesses the character of infallibility, which it clearly does, then the teaching of Paul VI on contraception is simply the reiteration of this infallible teaching. Subsequently, since truths about human nature and its rightful use do not change, this teaching likewise cannot change.

How to confess the use of contraception

There are some points worth making on the right confession of the use of contraception.

First of all, if one has simply sinned by the use of a contraceptive, it suffices to say that one has engaged in contraceptive sex, stating approximately how many times this has occurred. (Other forms of sterile/unnatural sexual activity must be confessed as separate sins, of whatever kind.)

Second, if one has deliberately held the opinion that contraception is not immoral, over and against the judgment of the Church, this ought to be confessed as well. The intellect is bound to assent to the teaching of the Church on this matter – otherwise, one presumes to usurp for himself the judgment of a moral item which has already been definitively ruled upon by the Church.

Third, if one has undergone a contraceptive surgery, this ought to be confessed as its own distinct act, specifying that one has mutilated oneself in view of contraception. This is because a sterilization is not only an act of contraception, it is an act of violence against the good of one’s own body. In my opinion, one is normally bound to reverse such a surgery if physically and financially possible. This would of course be impossible with irreversible surgeries (i.e. hysterectomies) and also seems unnecessary in the case where the couple includes a post-menopausal woman who can no longer conceive due to natural sterility. Still, in these special cases, the will must remain open to the theoretical possibility of conception, even though conception be unwanted and even impossible.

Remedies for those struggling with contraception

Individuals who habitually use contraception must become aware of the fact of their own darkness in this matter, and they must trust, rather blindly, that on the other side of making this radical change in their life they will as a result encounter a kind of peace, joy, and power that they are presently unable to grasp.

They must make a good confession, naming this sin and any other sins of similar gravity. Otherwise, due to the lack of sanctifying grace in the soul, not only will they likely struggle immensely to improve in chastity but whatever progress they make will not redound to any merit. Those with the guilt of mortal sin cannot please God until they are properly reconciled to Him – and, should they fail to make proper reconciliation, they will lose their souls forever at death. Even before confession, they ought to make a good act of contrition immediately, apologizing to God for having thus offended Him, seeking to make confession as soon as reasonably possible.

Couples should open an honest conversation about why they are using contraception and what effects they think it may have and have had on their relationship. They must avoid blaming the other – unless only one party has been consenting, then they are both to blame, even if in different ways and to different degrees. The point of such soul-searching is healing in view of integrating themselves back into an ordered way of conjugal life. Sharp arguments must be avoided at all costs. The point is not to compete, it is to complete. The couple then must together strongly resolve that, no matter what, they will no longer defraud and degrade each other out of the search for pleasures cut off from their natural purpose but will instead trust God and each other enough to welcome whatever children may be conceived. In some cases, working with a good and like-minded marriage counselor could be helpful.

Individuals, including spouses, must also now struggle to attain the virtue of chastity. I have written a post giving in-depth advice on this, but here I will note that the removal of people from one’s life who are occasions of promiscuity is on the top of the list for the unmarried. For the married, they ought to consider more deeply what duties they undertook when exchanging vows, and if they have children already they ought to consider why they would not want another, even to go so far as to poison or mutilate themselves.

Finally, all who wish to attain to chastity must pray for assistance earnestly, frequently, and humbly. It will then be given, along with any other virtue which is thus requested.

Conclusion

One will find any number of voices that contradict what is presented here. Those voices may even claim the cloak of Catholicism. Yet the honest and open conscience will recognize that twisting the gift of human sexuality inward on oneself is a grave offense against God in every instance. And yet He is ready and eager to forgive immediately – so long as one still draws breath. The shame of such sins, once recognized as sins, can be overwhelming to the point of near-paralysis, and the pleasures indulged in can indeed deeply blind one to the good of virtue, as noted. But one must go onward and upward, with humble confidence in God’s mercy and assistance for all those who wish to pursue Him. Chastity is most especially a product of hope.

It is my deep desire that these observations will help individuals and couples embrace the heights to which they are called as chaste souls, and fruitful husbands and wives. I will pray for those who are challenged by this post, and I ask that they return the favor.

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Our Lady, Queen of Virgins, pray for us.

Taparelli: 150 Years Later

Eamonn Clark, STL

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the death of Fr. Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, SJ. (I thought it was today, but – apparently not!) My time is short right now but I could not let this moment go by without some brief acknowledgement of this man and his work.

He is the grandfather of Catholic social teaching. He pioneered Catholic theories on mediating associations, the living wage, subsidiarity, “social justice,” and the character of international affairs. He led the charge among the emerging “neo-Thomist” school in Italy, first in Rome, then in Naples where he was exiled, then in Sicily where he was further exiled. He was rehabilitated by Pius IX, who put him as a founding co-editor of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, which is still in print today.

His most famous student, who was in a semi-clandestine after school club at the Roman College devoted to reading St. Thomas, was Giacchino Pecci, the future Pope Leo XIII.

His works remain almost entirely untranslated, except for the French edition of his magnum opus, “Theoretical Wisdom of Natural Right Based on Fact,” which is as difficult to read as it sounds, notwithstanding the old Italian prose. There is some work being done to bring this text into the English language. I can’t wait… it will be really special.

Taparelli was decidedly a 19th century conservative, meaning, he rejected entirely the ideas motivating the French Revolution, which set him in opposition to many of his peers. Further, his close connections with the Italian peninsula’s political elite (including his own brother), coupled with his intellectual eclecticism and bold attempts to re-introduce St. Thomas into seminary formation, made him a lightning rod. So controversial was he that not even Leo XIII cited him in any text, despite the unmistakable influence, an influence that ran even into Pius XI as well. Pius thought that the theologian to read, after St. Thomas, was Taparelli.

For a meaningful introduction to Taparelli, his era, and his work, I recommend Thomas Behr’s recently released book.

We owe quite a bit to this man. I find it inappropriate to pass over this occasion without acknowledging him – and perhaps offering a prayer for his soul, though he is likely in no need.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Marital Sexual Ethics – An Analogy with Baking

Eamonn Clark, STL

Continuing on in articulating my developing thoughts in what increasingly seems to me to be a deeply neglected field, I would like to propose an analogy for understanding some of the basics about chastity within marriage.

There are some well-known Catholic authors, especially contemporary ones, who promote a sort of “anything goes as long as it ends the right way” approach, and they sometimes don’t even get that minimalist principle quite right. Instead, pulling from figures including the Salmanticenses and St. Alphonsus, let me offer the following example by which to understand some of the honest boundaries of the marital embrace.

The idea is to bake some bread with an oven and some dough. What is sure is that the oven should be pre-heated, which could take a while and may involve some adjustments. The dough might require some kneading as well, but probably not very much. Once the dough is ready, the kneading should stop, as it is now excessive and unproductive – and it is not really part of baking. The dough should certainly not be put in the sink or in the garbage, even if that might seem interesting and fun, as that would not really be baking, even if the plan is to put it in the oven later – just as it is really not baking in one’s own kitchen to use someone else’s oven for a few minutes with the plan to finish the bread in one’s own oven, so too it is not baking to put the dough in places not ordered toward making bread. Nor would keeping the oven at the right temperature without putting the dough in be baking; rather, it’s playing with the oven. And once the dough is baked, it is time to turn the oven off – to keep it running after the bread has been made is also not baking, it is also playing with the oven.

I hope this analogy can be especially useful for pastors and confessors in helping couples to understand appropriate and honest boundaries in the marriage bed. It is not easy to do so – but an image like this is probably one of the best ways. 99% of couples will get the message, at least. Certainly, the laxist doctrines ought to be condemned.

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Adventures in Casuistry: Episode 1 – Sanchez on the Marital Debt, Part 1

Eamonn Clark, STL

May I draw your attention to my newly expanded “research” tab, above on the top right. (Email readers, you have to go to the website itself to see). I have added many links to old manuals of moral theology. The authors are listed in no particular order, and they are mostly files accessible through Google Books. The first volume of what I think is the most relevant moral theology text is what I link to, but other volumes and works are searchable below in the “related” section. It is incredible what is available to all, for free.

Almost all of them are in Latin. And they are generally enormous books, meticulously organized, quite searchable, and, for someone whose mind is “wound tight,” they are extremely satisfying to read.

I have known of the manuals for a while, but only in the past few weeks have I really become seriously interested in working through them – in part because I discovered many of them are available for free online, but also because I have been working on some questions related to sexual ethics… I am astonished to find the wisdom on this topic in the older authors being so rich, so vast, and so entirely forgotten. It is a tragedy. (The blame mostly falls on the myriad of things going on in the 19th century, including, we must admit, the rise of neoscholasticism. The manuals in general started to fall out of favor around this time.)

Therefore, in order to make a small contribution to the recovery of the manualist tradition, which ought to be revived to some extent, and to help expose new students like myself to these treasure troves of theological acumen, I will be posting some texts from them once in a while, with a translation, maybe even a few comments.

Today, flowing from my studies on marriage and sexuality, we dive into Thomas Sanchez, SJ’s immense work on marriage, De Matrimonio, which is one of the most important texts on the topic in the history of theology. It is a HUGE work, divided into 10 books over 3 volumes, with hundreds of questions addressed. Today, we are looking at the introduction to Disputation VIII, in Book 9 (On the Marital Debt), which we find on page 193 of Volume 3.

I am working on my Latin… I start, I admit, with Google Translate, and I go from there. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of all my translations, so be aware of that. If you are a Latinist and want to help, please reach out! (NB: I also might skip over some of the citations which authors make, for simplicity’s sake. You can always just look at the text yourself if you want to know references.)

Sanchez, De Matrimonio, Liber IX, Disputatio VIII (Tomus III, 193) [“Introduction”]

Disputatio VIII: An actus conjugalis vitietur ratione finis ad quem referetur? Et specialiter si solum exerceatur propter bonum sacramenti: nempe, ad significandam conjunctionem Verbi cum carne aut Ecclesia?

Disputation VIII: Is the conjugal act corrupted by reason of the end to which it is referred? And especially if it is exercised only for the good of the sacrament, namely, to signify the conjunction of the Word with the flesh or the church?

Hactenus in genere disputavimus, qualiter sit licitus, et obliget conjugalis actus. Jam de circumstantiis, quibus vitiari solet, agendum est. Et primo de finis circumstantia, quae in actibus humanis primum locum obtinet. Et potest esse multiplex finis illius actus, nempe, prolis, reddere debitum, significatio unius Christi cum Ecclesia, aut cum carne, sanitas corporis, vitatio fornicationis, voluptas, aut alius finis extraneos. In praesentiarum disserimus conjugalis licitus est, relatus in bonum prolis, aut in fidei bonum: nempe, dum exercetur gratia prolis habendae, aut servandae fidei alteri conjugi reddendi ei debitum. Conclusio tanquam certissima statuitur a Magistro 4. d. 11 et D. Th. ili q. 2 . a. 2 et universis Theologis: et ab omnibus utriusque juris professoribus cum Gloss. e. Quidquid 31 q. 2. verb. Ab adulterio. Et constat de bono prolis. Quia cum Deus ad multiplicationem generis humani matrimonium instituerit, illo utens ad hunc finem peccare nequit: alias Deus aliquid illicitum instituisset. De bono etiam fidei constat. Quia tenentur conjuges ex justitia ad debitum sibi mutuo reddendum. Quia ergo, ut huic satisfaciat obligationi, ad conjugem accedit, tantum abest, ut peccet, ut potius opus virtutis et obligatorium faciat.

So far we have discussed in general how the conjugal act is lawful and how it binds. We shall now treat of the circumstances under which it is wont to be vitiated. First, the circumstance of the end, which takes place first in human acts. And there may be a manifold end of that act, namely, children, paying the debt, signifying Christ’s oneness with the Church, or with the flesh, the health of the body, the avoidance of fornication, the pleasure, or other external ends. In the present discussion, a married person is allowed to join in the good of the child, or in the good of faith, namely, when he exercises the influence of having a child, or of keeping the faith in return to the other spouse due to him. The conclusion is established as the most reliable by the Master 4. d. 11 and St. Thomas in q. 2 a. 2 and by all theologians. And it is clear about the good of the child. Because when God instituted marriage for the multiplication of the human race, one cannot sin by using it for this purpose: otherwise God would have instituted something unlawful. It is also evident of the good of faith. Because married couples are bound by justice to pay the debt to one another. And because, in order to satisfy this obligation, the man goes to his wife, so far from being a sinner, he rather does an obligatory work of virtue.

Observare tamen oportet minime sufficere, quod actus conjugalis culpae venialis immunis sit ex finis circumstantia, ipsum referre ad bonum prolis. Nam si in prole sistatur, desiderioque habendi successorem ea intendatur, culpa venialis erit: sed proles intendi debet ad cultum Dei amplificandum. Ratio est, quia alias staretur in creatura, nec bonum esset faeramenti. Natura enim bonum prolis intendit, ut in ipsa species conservetur: bonum autem sacramenti exposcit, ut referatur in Deum. Nec inde inferre licet motum naturae malum esse, sed esse imperfectum; nisi ad aliquod sacramenti bonum referatur. Sic D.Th. 4. d. 31 qu. 2 a. 2 ad. 1 Gerson. p.1 in compenio Theologiae tract. de sacramento conjugii, alphabeto 27 litera O. Tabiena Matrimonium 3 q. 2 s. 3

However, it is far from sufficient to observe that the act of a conjugal act is immune from venial guilt, from the circumstance of the end, that it relates to having a child. For if it is ordered towards having offspring, and it is motivated by an intense desire simply to have a successor, it will be a venial sin; but having offspring should be directed to enlarging the number of those worship of God. The reason is, that otherwise it would be only about creatures, and thus would not be well done. For while it is true that nature intends the good of the offspring to be preserved in the species itself, the good of the sacrament demands that it be referred to God. Nor is it lawful to infer from this that the motion of nature is evil, but only that it is imperfect unless it is referred to some sacramental good. Thus St. Thomas 4. d. 31 qu. 2 a. 2 ad. 1.

Nec tamen reminisci opus est in actu ipso conjugali alicujus ex finisbus licitis, sed satis est, si habitu referatur ad illos. Sicut juxta communem. Theologorum senten. id satis est ad meritum. Atque ita D.Th. et Tabien. num. praeced. allegati dicunt erigi, ut proles actu vel habitu referatur in Deum. Ita docent Veracruz 3 p. Speculi, art. 16. concl. 5. Matienz. lib. 5 recop.t.I.rubr.glos.I. n. 105. Led. 2 p.4.q.5 1. ad fi. Quare satis est, si a principio conjuges matrimonium inierint propter hos fines, nec intentionem ipso actu contrariam habeant, ut actus conjugalis in ipsos relatus censeatur. Ut bene docent Led. et Veracr. ibidem, qua de causa dicit Led. excusari conjuges a multis venialibus. Quod optime etiam explicuit Sylvest. verb. Debitum, quaest. 12. vers. 2 ubi dicens ut actus conjugalis meritorius si, referendam esse prolem ad Dei obsequium: subdit id esse verum, licet de obsequio divino nil cogitetur, sed solum de successore. Quia ex quo conjux est in gratia, nec malum finem intendit, virtute refert in Deum.

However, there is no need to remember anything from the lawful ends of the conjugal act itself, but it is enough if it refers to them in habit. It is approximately the general opinion of the theologians this is enough for merit. And St. Thomas and Tabien. say the same. Surely the preceding say that the procuring of offspring may be referred to God in act or habit. Therefore, it is sufficient that if couples from the beginning had entered into marriage on account of these ends, and they did not have an intention contrary to the act itself, then it would be considered related to their conjugal acts. See Veracruz, (ibid.). And it is for this reason which reason Led. says couples are excused from many venial sins. Sylvest. also explains this very well, where he says, that if the conjugal act were meritorious, that the offspring should be referred to the service of God, he adds, that it is true, even if nothing is thought of divine obedience, but only of a successor. Because since he is a partner in grace and does not intend an evil end, he refers the act virtually to God.

Next time, we will continue on with Sanchez and see what conclusions he draws from the foregoing.

Happy Easter, dear readers!

What is a “just cause” for using natural family planning?

Eamonn Clark, STL

I am on a really deep dive right now into the source material and several questions surrounding the use of “natural family planning” (NFP). There is a LOT on my mind… many questions, many distinctions, and maybe a few answers. While I will wait to share my findings – primarily, whether and why this practice as broadly taught is in principle legitimate, illegitimate, or needs more qualification – here I want to explore what a “just cause” is for the use of periodic continence or NFP in the first place.

Before looking at the documents, to summarize briefly, NFP involves tracking the fertility of the woman in order to know when she can conceive. The idea is that abstaining from relations during those fertile times, or, conversely, trying especially hard to conceive during the fertile times, will be more conducive to the familial goals of the spouses. There are a number of ways to do this, but the specifics of the methods are beyond the scope of this post.

The texts which will be quoted are going to make the point, in various ways, that only serious reasons justify the recourse to the exclusive use of natural infertile periods. (To give you a sneak-peek of my other work on this question, part of my hypothesis is that NFP can be compared with speech in various ways – broad mental reservations can be justified by legitimate reasons, but one needs to have a good reason for speaking in the first place, or else it is idle speech. Thus, NFP needs not only a serious reason in principle but also in the individual case of its use, i.e., the legitimate need for the relaxation of concupiscence, not just “recreation.” But I am getting ahead of myself.) These come after several responses from the Sacred Penitentiary about the issue, twice in the 1800’s and once in 1932, slowly opening the door to the practice. But here we are only concerned with “just causes” for the use of NFP, not the liceity of the practice in itself. (It is true the 1932 decision refers to “just and grave causes,” but there is no elaboration.) Here they are, in order of appearance. Emphases added.

Pius XII, Address to Italian Midwives, October 29, 1951:

“However if the limitation of the act to the periods of natural sterility does not refer to the right itself but only to the use of the right, the validity of the marriage does not come up for discussion. Nonetheless, the moral lawfulness of such conduct of husband and wife should be affirmed or denied according as their intention to observe constantly those periods is or is not based on sufficiently morally sure motives. The mere fact that husband and wife do not offend the nature of the act and are even ready to accept and bring up the child, who, notwithstanding their precautions, might be born, would not be itself sufficient to guarantee the rectitude of their intention and the unobjectionable morality of their motives.

The reason is that marriage obliges the partners to a state of life, which even as it confers certain rights so it also imposes the accomplishment of a positive work concerning the state itself. In such a case, the general principle may be applied that a positive action may be omitted if grave motives, independent of the good will of those who are obliged to perform it, show that its performance is inopportune, or prove that it may not be claimed with equal right by the petitioner—in this case, mankind.

The matrimonial contract, which confers on the married couple the right to satisfy the inclination of nature, constitutes them in a state of life, namely, the matrimonial state. Now, on married couples, who make use of the specific act of their state, nature and the Creator impose the function of providing for the preservation of mankind. This is the characteristic service which gives rise to the peculiar value of their state, the ‘bonum prolis’. The individual and society, the people and the State, the Church itself, depend for their existence, in the order established by God, on fruitful marriages. Therefore, to embrace the matrimonial state, to use continually the faculty proper to such a state and lawful only therein, and, at the same time, to avoid its primary duty without a grave reason, would be a sin against the very nature of married life.

Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called “indications,” may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful, from the moral viewpoint: and it is lawful in the conditions mentioned. If, however, according to a reasonable and equitable judgment, there are no such grave reasons either personal or deriving from exterior circumstances, the will to avoid the fecundity of their union, while continuing to satisfy to the full their sensuality, can only be the result of a false appreciation of life and of motives foreign to sound ethical principles.”

Pius XII, Address to the National Congress of the Family Front and the Association of Large Families, National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington, DC, November 27, 1951:

On the other hand, the Church knows how to consider with sympathy and understanding the real difficulties of married life in our day. For this reason, in Our last address on conjugal morality, We affirmed the legitimacy and at the same time the limits – admittedly far-reaching – of regulating offspring, which, contrary to so-called “birth control”, is compatible with God’s law. One can indeed hope (but in this matter the Church naturally leaves judgment to medical science) that medical science will succeed in giving this licit method a sufficiently secure basis, and the most recent information seems to confirm this hope.

St. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, July 25, 1968

“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained. Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the latter practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the latter they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2368

“For just reasons (de iustis causis), spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality.”

So those are the most relevant texts about motives for NFP. Here’s Christian Brugger’s take.

Here’s mine.

First, one ought to note the distinction between the use of periodic continence and abstinence. The documents do not drill into this difference, and it is a potentially significant difference. In the Speech to Italian Midwives, Pius XII seems to address both of these practices under the same aspect, but it is not clear that they are morally equivalent. For the sake of simplicity, we will only address the use of periodic continence, that is, the “normal way” of using NFP, which is not total abstinence, though it seems to me there is an extension of this argument, if only partial, into the use of total abstinence as well.

Second, the only malleable or truly subjective consideration seems to be the economic factor. There are broadly 4 kinds of things which can legitimately influence the decision to use periodic continence.

  1. Economic (we will come back to this)
  2. Social and psychological (considerations like: are you possibly facing a divorce? is there nobody helpful emotionally in your life? are there sources of psychological and emotional distress which you cannot escape from and which already impede your normal functioning?)
  3. Physical and medical (considerations like: is pregnancy dangerous for the woman? is it dangerous for the child, whether by miscarriage or by serious birth defect or congenital illness? are you too unhealthy to raise a child well?)
  4. External and eugenic (considerations like: is there a “one-child” policy that would force you to obtain an abortion? is there some other regime which would radically endanger your child, such as a warlord looking for child soldiers? are you in a war zone? does your spouse intend on doing some strange genetic modification treatment/experiment on the child if the child isn’t “right”?)

The economic factor is the most interesting and most subjective consideration. Clearly, all the factors listed require some amount of “phronesis,” or “practical wisdom,” meaning a kind of judgment based on experience and reasonable estimation of what the possibilities are in the future.

Most couples in the developed world, I would suggest, are infrequently facing issues 2 through 4, although they do exist – and when they obtain, it is relatively clear, though there could be some ambiguity.

The economic factor is what most couples probably think about. “Can we afford another child?” This is the question. By this, almost nobody in the developed world who lives above the poverty line means, “Can we actually feed, clothe, and house this child, and provide for his or her medical needs,” it is rather something more minor… “Can we still do all the things we enjoy, in the way we enjoy them, if we have another child?” This is prescinding from the first few years, which absolutely excludes any sort of frequent extended leisure for almost every couple except the “1%”.

Some would say, “You do not need another television/car/house/vacation,etc., be more generous,” and that is their whole solution. While plausible, I think that there is a better or at least more nuanced path forward. That path is an application of the doctrine of St. Thomas and the manualists following him on the distribution of one’s wealth, through almsgiving and justice.

Justice demands that we pay fair taxes on our wealth and financially help those closely connected to us when they are in extreme indigence. Charity demands that we give some small amount of our excess wealth to those whose need, while not extreme and urgent, is serious, whether directly or through some intermediary (like a philanthropic organization). However, this giving based on charity does not ever need to disadvantage one to the point where he or she would live in a way that is unbecoming to his or her social class. To live in a way that is unbefitting is actually sinful on St. Thomas’ account, and to give that which would risk putting one in such a situation can only be justified by extraordinary circumstances, such as the clear choice to change states of life (i.e., entering religious life, giving all of your property away), the extreme need of an individual or the common good, or the case where one could foresee the easy recovery of adequate wealth to live in the way one is generally accustomed to.

I would cautiously suggest the following thesis, which I may modify in the future… Justice demands that the married couple is open to life in virtue of being married, and, insofar as economics bears on the question, charity – even the virtue of religion – demands that they try to have children (or at least not try to avoid having children) when they would not be moved down a social class thereby. Charity and religion demand us to love our neighbor – and by extension, our potential neighbor – on account of God’s love for them. Religion demands fitting sacrifices for the glory and honor of God, which in this case means that couples always have at least a habitual intention to raise children to be pious worshipers of Christ. Justice means rendering the other what is due, which means both the mutual self-giving of the spouses’ bodies to each other, and also the “legal justice” (one of the three types of justice) of providing for the common good of the community by having and raising children.

Nobody ever regrets having a child. It only goes in the opposite direction, whether by not having one or by the even more tragic decision to kill them in the womb. But sometimes the peripheral effects of having a child are regrettable and even warrant the avoidance of what would occasion them, even though children are the primary point of marriage as an office of nature. This is an act of prudence and magnanimity… To be reckless here can be imprudent and presumptuous. Even though God will always provide the child what he or she needs for salvation, it is the role of the parents to participate appropriately in that task, which task can be greatly complicated in some cases. It does not become impossible to do the will of God in such circumstances, but one does in fact sin by putting themselves into a situation which is beyond their natural means and habitual graces, which are the primary tools of discernment here.

A corollary is: if you aren’t ready to have kids, don’t get married…

There is so, so, so much to talk about in this minefield of issues. I have plenty more to say. But I will just let this bomb drop for now. I am running an unofficial survey right now on people’s attitudes towards NFP in view of some other writing, including eventually here on these pages. Please leave a comment below telling us what your thoughts are. Do young married people of this generation “just not get it”? Are the documents missing something which could help illuminate the problem? How is NFP presented in your parish and diocese? Tell me everything, I am interested to hear. You can use the “Contact” tab too, if you want.

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Principles for Chaste Relationships – Part I

Eamonn Clark, STL

“How far is too far?” This is simultaneously the most popular and most wrongheaded question that star-crossed lovers can ask. And they are often given well-meaning but misguided advice based on intuitive but terrible or at least incomplete ideas. These latter are often dependent on a rightly developed sense of shame – guidelines like “Would you do this in front of x person” fall into this category.

I don’t think depending on such principles is all that bad for group talks with high schoolers, but it leaves much to be desired. It does not explain the “why” behind chastity’s concrete applications in courtship, and it is insufficient for a real examination of conscience; it is thus especially unhelpful for confessors and preachers trying to sort through these complex issues when souls are really on the line. We can do better by going to the heart of the matter, though it takes some work. Let’s take on the question in appropriate detail then, shall we?

In this series of posts, we will investigate 5 great principles for chaste courtship. They are:

  1. Distinguish between love, desire, and delight (the three positive concupiscible passions)
  2. Don’t start what you can’t finish
  3. The emotions are not the body
  4. Risks can be justified by proportionate rewards
  5. If you can raise your mind, do that

First of all, the entire idea of “courtship” or “dating” is quickly being replaced by a bizarre imitator… Nowadays, one is either “hooking up” or going around in a group or just carrying on a “relationship” by text and social media. Men don’t care for the challenge and risk of a serious “pre-commitment commitment” by asking a girl out on a proper date – and unfortunately, many women don’t care to wait around for a man willing to do this. That’s a shame. But we’ll leave this aside and assume that we have two fine young people who are seeing each other regularly, alone, with romantic intentions clearly expressed, but without “benefits” being openly offered by either.

Those who dabble in the writings of the great moralists, especially St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori, might come away from their writings on chastity aghast – “Did he really just say what I think he did? He is SO out of touch!” Well, maybe he didn’t say what you think he said, and maybe his being “out of touch” with what is actually going on in your own life is why it’s difficult for you to grasp the point, as you are not his main audience (which was the confessors of their own times and places, though many points still stand). On the other hand, they do both lay down some hard (but freeing) truths, and sometimes being “out of touch” is just what one needs in order to get perspective on an issue – so maybe there is some wisdom to take from anyone who is “disconnected,” let alone from great saints who are geniuses of moral theology. Let’s dive in then, with these two saintly friends as guides… (I won’t quote much, but I will synthesize instead with just a few references.) NB: These are principles especially useful for courtship, but plenty would also apply for married life, albeit in a slightly different way.

The first great principle: distinguish between love, desire, and delight (the three positive concupiscible passions).

The paradigm of “love-desire-delight” is the road map for our appetites’ relationship with pleasant things that are easily achieved; love corresponds with the perception of a good, desire with the motion towards a good, and delight (also called “pleasure” or “joy” in some cases) with the possession of a good. (With unpleasant things, we have “hatred-aversion-sorrow.” And with difficult goods and evils, we have the passions of fear, despair, hope, daring, and anger, the passions of the “irascible” appetite.)

“Desire” is also sometimes called “concupiscence.” Both are words with diverse meanings. Here, by “desire” and “concupiscence” we mean the felt inclination towards a definite sensible good to be obtained by a particular kind of act.

Let’s go through these emotions – or “passions” – one by one.

I see the cheeseburger, and I know that it is a good thing to eat, full of juicy grade-A beef, fresh lettuce and tomatoes, and maybe even some bacon. “That looks so good to eat! I bet it’s delicious!” Maybe my love is so strong that my salivary glands start to work as well, and my stomach starts to make itself felt. This is love, in the sense we mean it.

Could this be true love?

When I start actively wanting to eat the cheeseburger, feeling myself impelled towards picking it up and sinking my teeth into it, I have desire, or concupiscence, towards the cheeseburger. In desire, (which passion is accompanied by pleasure St. Alphonsus calls “inchoate” to the act one is being inclined toward,) I actually begin to anticipate having its succulent and savory goodness. This desire is separate from the sensation of merely perceiving that the cheeseburger is a good thing to eat, and also even from some kind of remote preparation for eating in the future, should I be so lucky.

Finally, the glorious moment has come: I devour the cheeseburger, and I have the passion proper to possession of the good – delight. This is a unique sensation of feeling fully satisfied in relation to the cheeseburger. It is also distinct from the actual taste and feeling of the physical consumption of the cheeseburger. I enjoy the pleasures that come from eating the cheeseburger. This completes the passions’ arc.

It would also be possible to create an imaginary act of eating the cheeseburger, whether it was really in front of me or not. If I am attempting to derive the pleasures of eating the cheeseburger without actually eating it, even just by running it through my mind, I have moved into a kind of delight in its possession without actually possessing it. And I could physically mimic the act of eating the cheeseburger, even with the cheeseburger itself! My stomach will remain empty, but I have a kind of mental satisfaction nevertheless in enjoying the desire itself for the cheeseburger for its own sake, which feeling is spurred on by the imagined act of eating the cheeseburger – and this act might actually impel me even more strongly towards really eating the cheeseburger moments later, when I snap out of my food fantasy back into reality.

It’s also the case that I could simply have the pleasant experience of imagining eating the cheeseburger without feeling a real desire to eat it. This is a subtly different act, but it is important, as we will see.

Digestion deals with self-preservation. Sex deals with the preservation of humanity. So while eating is important for the individual, sex is more important for the whole community as such. As it turns out, we can map this paradigm onto sexual attraction quite easily. He sees and even feels the woman’s beauty… He feels various inclinations in anticipating the possibilities right in front of him that he is moving towards fulfilling… He obtains what he was looking for. It is certainly no problem to have love for sexual goods – in fact, it would be unnatural not to have a disposition towards the opposite sex as such, just as it would be unnatural not to want good food – but unlike food, sex is not appropriate for everyone to “possess,” or even to have the desire for (in the strict sense of the word which we are using).

Loving the cheeseburger is a good and natural act. However, when the circumstances do not call for eating the cheeseburger there could be a problem if this passion is allowed to remain very long – rather, one should move the mind away to other things, like work or study or healthy recreation. (To deny this passion’s movement entirely is typically not healthy suppression but unhealthy repression, which can cause neurosis and possibly even despair, ending not infrequently in giving in to all manner of illicit pleasures. To acknowledge that one finds the lettuce or tomatoes of the cheeseburger to look delicious could be fine once in a while simply to relieve mental pressure which keeps pulling one away from other considerations and tasks; this acknowledgement might cause an accidental and momentary swelling of love and even could begin a movement of desire. Even though an accidental movement of desire would still be venial sin if delight is taken in it without deliberation, it would not seem to be a sin to indulge in this psychological release in cases of acute pressure unless done frequently or, of course, if done for the sake of arousing desire. This is my own view on the basic dynamic of suppression vis-à-vis repression… Take it for what it’s worth. There are better ways to avoid such temptations, which should be used more frequently… of course, I am not talking about cheeseburgers.) When one starts actively “desiring” (not simply “loving”) an object of an act which is not allowed (and in this case, feeling that desire by an inclination towards an individual instance of that act), that passion needs to be suppressed or fought against somehow immediately, often by distraction, such as moving around, a short prayer, etc. When desire begins, one is already in venial sin. (See my other post on practical chastity here.) To be sure, the line between love and desire is a bit blurry, though love is mostly felt in higher parts of the body like the head and chest, while desire has a lower “center of gravity,” more around the stomach. Whatever the case, the motion of desire, which already contains a kind of “pre-delight,” can itself become the object of “delight,” namely, when one enjoys the feeling of anticipation of the exterior act, often by imagining the act or simulating it in some way.

St. Thomas calls this pleasant and deliberate attention to anticipation “morose delectation.” (See Articles 6, 7, and 8 – they are complex.) It’s one thing to take delight in the thought of a sin (a kind of “curiosity”), it’s another to delight in the sin which one is thinking of. Deliberately enjoying the “desire” for a sin is itself convertible with the commission of the sin which is being virtually enjoyed. Such a thought, to be clear, has to have been chosen with sufficient deliberation, more than a split second or two, somewhat depending on the person – and if we are honest, one can generally determine the moment when one really has the freedom to choose… it’s the moment where one has gotten over the initial intrigue or shock of the pleasant thing and realizes that he could stop if he wanted to but freely decides to simulate the immoral act as a kind of virtual-reality playground, actually wanting to do this act despite really refraining from it for whatever reason. (This arguably even extends to the reason, “Because it is immoral,” as one then shows a kind of contempt for the Wisdom of God which has ordered things thus – we are bound to want to follow the moral law because it is actually good for us. But it is a bit dubious – and this is a more complex discussion.) And given enough time, one will have forfeited the excuse for not driving away desire in the first place even without positive deliberate consent, which reduces to morose delectation. This feeling is also distinct from the actual physical preparation of the body, which means morose delectation is not the same as autoeroticism – though clearly, the one can lead to the other. It seems important also that the anticipation must be of a concrete or determinate exterior act, even if virtual (“not really going to happen”), and it needs to be considered without circumstances which would excuse the action (viz., being married to this individual). While St. Thomas balks on a strong position on morose delectation of mortal sin as being mortal sin itself (stating merely that it is the more common opinion and is more likely than not), with the distinction of determinacy and proximity to circumstance, we begin to see how to solve the puzzle. The more concrete the action is which one desires (i.e. “to go home with this person right now, and … etc.”), and the less one is concerned with remotely achievable circumstances (viz., marriage, which consideration will both quickly melt away and would not excuse from venial sin anyway), the more likely it is to be mortal sin, because the latter is more tied to the passion of desire inclined toward a real act which is (or would be) mortal sin. So, the average “impure thought” is venial sin, even if dwelt upon (barring the advertence to the danger of slipping further – which does need to be considered in a moral evaluation), as long as there is not desire which develops and then is deliberately taken pleasure in. That is my take, at least.

If you wanted a simple explanation, there really isn’t one. The passions are not simple things. But, as close to a shortcut as you can get might be to say that mere desire to sin, without deliberation, is “to want to sin,” while deliberately enjoying that desire to sin is “to want to want to sin,” and just enjoying thinking of something which would be a sin on account of its illicit pleasures is “to want to think about sin.” The first is venial, the second is mortal if it has a concrete goal and venial if it does not, the third is venial.

TL;DR: wanting sex in general is natural and good unless dwelt on too much, feeling the pleasure of anticipation of a real and illicit sexual act is venial sin, and deliberately enjoying that feeling of anticipation, especially including by simulating sexual activity, is mortal sin.

In the next post, we will explore the second great principle: don’t start what you can’t finish.

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A Brief Note on Politics

Eamonn Clark, STL

You have never heard of Esarhaddon. You might have heard of his father, but you have not heard of him.

I am watching the ongoing fiasco in the USA with a lot of interest – perhaps with more interest than is appropriate. (If you do not know that there is a fiasco, well, you are in for a surprise when the mainstream/legacy media is finally forced to cover what is actually about to happen in the courts.) The whole world is focused on American politics at the moment, and it seems that it is all so extremely consequential. For some people, surely it is consequential, in an individual existential sense, whether in terms of careers or direct effects from public policy that is actually at stake (which is not nearly as much as people tend to think, at least with respect to the U.S. presidency). Others think it is just about the end of the world if their candidate doesn’t win – and this sad phenomenon was quite famously on display in the aftermath of 2016. When people choose to define the meaning of their lives by the presence of a few people in Washington D.C., the individuality of one’s own life is forgotten, let alone the perspective of eternity.

Again, you have never heard of Esarhaddon. He was considered “Lord and King of the Universe.” And of all men, in terms of temporal, political power, he may indeed have the best claim of anyone in world history, or at least he is in the top 10 or so. (Mansa Musa would be another good contender, along with Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and a few Roman Emperors.) But you have never even heard of him.

Esarhaddon was the Emperor of Assyria at its absolute apex, from 681-669 B.C. His career included most significantly successfully conquering Egypt. (He is mentioned indirectly in 2 Chronicles 33:11 when the extremely wicked King Manasseh of Judah was captured by him – who then prayed to God and was eventually freed – but be honest, you do not recall that verse!) However, we know from his private letters that he was a very depressed and disturbed man. He was especially distraught over the premature death of one of his children – not unlike Pharaoh (or later, ironically, King David). For all his immense power, he could not stop the death of his family or of himself, and he could barely function in his imperial duties, often withdrawing for months at a time from public life. (In a strange and rather unique practice, there would be a “substitute king” for 100 days – after which period, the unfortunate man taking the emperor’s place would be executed. In fact, Esarhaddon once used this to dispose of one of his great political rivals…) Assyrians would have surely been as attentive to the goings-on of the imperial court as Americans are to the White House. How relevant is Assyrian politics now, except for the sake of understanding world history and especially Scripture?

You know Esarhaddon’s father, Sennacherib, whose march on Jerusalem is addressed in Isaiah 10 and 2 Kings 18-19 – likely the only reason you would have heard of him. You also might have even heard of Esarhaddon’s son, Assurbanipal (whose rule led to the end of the Empire), although that’s not so likely. But you’ve never heard of Esarhaddon. That’s worth considering. He is dead, he is forgotten, and his empire is gone too. So much for Esarhaddon, “Lord and King of the Universe.”

Will normal people 2,600 years from now have ever even heard of Trump or Biden? Who knows. But they will have heard of Jesus of Nazareth. And all that time from now, Jesus of Nazareth will remember each of us, as well.

The Real Reason for Priestly Celibacy

Eamonn Clark, STL

Do you remember the Amazon Synod? Well, it seems it failed to give certain people what they wanted: widespread married priests in the Latin Church. Of all the many arguments made in both directions, one consideration in favor of the discipline deserves our full attention today.

It is not that of economics, though the problems of time and energy and money are real. “But the East does it, so why can’t we?” Well, never mind that they have been doing this a long time and have gotten used to it, but the real question is: why are there so few Eastern Catholics? It’s because their priests are typically not very free for mission work, for frequent mobility, for constant preaching and teaching… due to marriage. They cannot nearly as easily embrace the faithful as fathers, because they have a biological family. They are not as available in their ministries as celibates, even though they are certainly valuable ministries nonetheless.

It is not that of the eschatological sign of celibacy. Though this is certainly powerful – one knows that the Catholic priest is different, in part because of this. He is a counter-cultural symbol. And to “cave” on this is to give up a massive moral authority over a world which the Church seeks to convert, a world which, to reiterate, stands in need of missionaries who are not tied down by the demands of domestic life.

The reason of reasons is neither of these important things. Rather, it is contemplation.

I was reading up a bit just the other day on the Carthusians. You may have heard of them because of a famous documentary which took 21 years to make. Well, they do exist, and they are a nice starting point for the discussion. What exactly is the point of Carthusian life? What do they do all day? Why don’t they go preach and hear confessions or even at least allow for retreats in their monasteries? They walk into the mountains, live practically alone in a room for their entire lives, and don’t hardly even communicate with the outside world at all except when absolutely necessary.

The Order explains it bluntly: the only goal of Carthusian life is the contemplation of God.

After all, “Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:42) Apostolic activity is good, and it is even necessary in a way, but it is not the best thing to do absolutely speaking, and it is not, ultimately, the most necessary thing to do either. The higher thing is to meet God face to face – the real “one thing necessary.”

We bracket here the question of apostolic life that comes from an “overflow” of contemplation… In fact, from my reading of Thomas, it seems the objectively highest vocation for him is to be a bishop freed from administration, living in a hermitage under religious vows, who occasionally comes into public to preach and administer the sacraments out of an abundance of mystical illumination from the depths of his prayer. Not exactly the norm – but the argument is strong. And its strength comes in part from his doctrine on the contemplative life, a doctrine which beautifully matches his teaching on the ascetical (“penitential”) life. Let’s dive in with Thomas on fasting. (And no – St. Thomas Aquinas was not “fat,” or at least not large from overeating. Stay tuned for a post on that in a few weeks.)

There are three purposes for fasting, and by extension, other ascetical practices. First, to do penance in reparation for sin. By taking on some small pains, we atone for what wrong we have done, thus alleviating some of our due punishment (greatly aided by the Church’s generosity in granting indulgences). Second, fasting is for cooling the passions. It is really difficult to be pining after a beautiful woman if you are really hungry. (And this is not the only good trick to help with chastity, as I’ve explored elsewhere.) Third, we fast to elevate our minds to God. The passions being cooled allows for the mind to be freed of preoccupation with the lower things and to move instead to higher things, such as meditation on the Passion, or a consideration of the meaning of our lives in the light of eternity, to examine our consciences clearly, to think on the love of God and the Mysteries of the Life of Christ… and simply to be attentive to God with an habitual, loving gaze, longing for Him and His Will, no matter how distasteful it may be to our lower appetites. This is the Wisdom which comes from the Cross, which is where perfect freedom was and is still. Christ, though physically tormented – and even physically trapped – manifested the highest degree of personal freedom on the Cross. By draining Himself of all earthly desires, He fully and completely accomplished an act of superabundant charity in accord with the Will of the Father Who had sent Him for this precise purpose. And, though physically trapped, we must remember that every moment was nonetheless chosen deliberately and without constraint; indeed, He could have come down if He had willed to. This is the pattern for growth in discipleship – to deny the lower self in favor of uniting the higher self with God, to do His Will for its own sake, and for its own sake alone. Contemplation is the highest part of our mind dwelling on the Almighty God, a quiet foretaste of the exhilarating enthrallment of Heaven.

Astute readers will notice an opening for the teaching of St. John of the Cross to sneak in. While John certainly is valuable in many ways, I would suggest that his specific teaching on the active purgation (“doing penance/fasting/deprivations,” especially in order to initiate the first passive purgation or “dark night of the senses”) is a bit too narrow or strict, even if rhetorically helpful when set alongside the more moderate approach of Thomas. In fact, Thomas seems to say precisely this, in a roundabout way, both in his teaching on the usefulness of marriage (which John seems to have been rather suspicious of, given his comment in Ascent of Mount Carmel that the married ought to be “perplexed” by the lack of a higher vocation) and in his critique of the Stoics, the Greek philosophical sect that disdained the enjoyment of any physical pleasures. We should recall that this was a very hot topic for Thomas, as the Albigensian heresy was not yet dead… This made it all the more necessary to stress the goodness of the physical world and its proper use, yes, even of physical pleasures.

However, despite his mockery of the Stoic doctrine – which he says nobody follows anyway, including the teachers of such things – Thomas insists on the usefulness of asceticism for the sake of better contemplation. This is a function not of physical pleasures being “bad,” nor of suffering or deprivation being “good” on their own, but because of the brokenness of human nature in the context of the body-soul composite. Physical pleasures drag the mind toward the things from which they derive, thus tending to drag the mind away from God, unless, as John rightly points out in Book I of Dark Night of the Soul, they are enjoyed precisely on account of elevating the mind to God, a point which St. Paul himself indicates should come through the mode of thanksgiving, in 1 Timothy 4:1-5: “We are expressly told by inspiration that, in later days, there will be some who abandon the faith, listening to false inspirations, and doctrines taught by the devils. They will be deceived by the pretensions of impostors, whose conscience is hardened as if by a searing-iron. Such teachers bid them abstain from marriage, and from certain kinds of food, although God has made these for the grateful enjoyment of those whom faith has enabled to recognize the truth. All is good that God has made, nothing is to be rejected; only we must be thankful to him when we partake of it, then it is hallowed for our use by God’s blessing and the prayer which brings it.”

But that much gratitude is difficult to keep up. In many cases, it is better to forego the pleasures entirely rather than count on having a perpetual habit of thanksgiving, which is certainly as laudable of a goal as it is an unreachable one, especially over a long period of time, wherein one becomes habituated to the use of pleasures, especially in marriage, and may even grow a bit entitled in spirit. Even barring this, one’s mind will nevertheless still be pulled down by the mere fact of the energy of the intellect and will being drained in the use of intense pleasures with any kind of frequency. It is not immoral, it is simply not ideal.

However, the flip side is that many do not have the gifts to give up certain pleasures in favor of contemplation – a point running somewhat contrary to the spirit of John’s teaching – and this attempt can even become the sin of presumption (against magnanimity by excess, not against hope by excess). The one whose mind is dragged down even more by the lack of certain licit pleasures, such as in marriage, after some attempt at getting above this struggle, is in fact better off resigning to weakness, at least for the time being. By a moderate use of these pleasures, he will free his mind more than he was able to without their use. The fixation will disappear, and he can move on with life, including in prayer, and perhaps later on he can go higher up if there is occasion, for instance, by a mutual agreement to live in perpetual continence with his spouse.

This brings us almost all the way to the point. It belongs to the priest especially to know God, and the things of God, and to judge well as an administrator and spiritual father. This requires the sharpest and freest of minds. This means, first of all, that priests should be doing a lot of fasting and other penances. It also means that they should be free of the weight of the pleasures of marriage, ideally freed from the married state altogether (which perhaps relates more to availability than to contemplation, though it still does free the mind of the activities proper to domestic concerns).

The capital vices (the “seven deadly sins”) each have “daughters” – these are other vices or sins which tend to flow from the capital vices. The capital vice of gluttony, opposed by abstinence (moderation in food and normal drink) and especially by fasting (which is an act of infused temperance properly speaking), has five daughters: unseemly joy, scurrility or foolish manners, loquaciousness, uncleanness/pollution, and dullness of mind as regards the understanding. This doesn’t mean that enjoying food is sinful, but even a lot of licit enjoyment of food will tend towards these unfortunate actions… The last one is especially pertinent, namely, dullness of mind as regards the understanding. The daughters of lust, we should note, are eight: blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, narcissism, hatred of God, love of this world, and hatred or despair of the world to come. Again, several of these relate directly to the well-functioning of the rational part of the soul with respect to contemplation… especially blindness of mind.

The dull and blind in mind have a hard time understanding spiritual things without a lot of help. Their attention is too focused on worldly pleasures – even licit ones – to be easily elevated to the world of the spirit.

Where are all the discussions about this, I wonder?

The great Carthusian dictum is true: “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis.” The Cross is still, while the world turns. If we want spiritual fathers who are “alter Christi,” “other Christs,” then conformity with the unchanging dynamic of the Cross, at least in a basic way, is of the utmost importance. As we see, the availability for ministry is only a part of the equation. What does one bring into his ministry without easy access to the deeper kind of contemplation which is generally only available to the celibate? The flesh must be brought into subjection – crucified, as it were – so that spiritual strength and power may lead the priest into the wisdom proper to his office as a teacher, judge, intercessor, and administrator. For, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25) Let the world have its misguided opinions about clerical celibacy – for they have such opinions about the Cross, too. And let the Church stand as still as the Cross, while the world continues to turn.

“I no longer call you servants…”

Eamonn Clark, STL

Here’s a one-minute Gospel reflection for you today.

We read the Parable of the Wedding Feast at Mass…

The one who shows up without a wedding garment is rejected in the following way:

“How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.

The Last Supper Discourses in John give us the great “turn” from servile fear to filial or reverential fear, acknowledged by Christ in the words (John 15:15), “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

We know that Judas is among them. Now watch (Matthew 26: 48-50):

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

Friend. Where is your wedding garment? How did you get in here? I can no longer even call you a servant. You do not know the gift of the Eucharist, you do not know my love, you do not know the Church. You have no virtue, no love for me. You have no wedding garment, you bring the world in with you instead of purity. Friend… The darkness and pain which you lead me to this terrible night, you yourself will experience forever. If only you had loved me… You have not learned what my Father has given me to teach. Friend… You will indeed taste the Eucharist, as your lips touch my sacred Blood pouring already from my face. But it is to your shame. You are not prepared for the Banquet… Friend… Friend…

Just as David wept for Absalom, so does Christ sorrow over every soul that is lost, even the most wicked. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33)

He is always a Friend to us… Even if we are far from Him, He is always close to us.

An Abandoned Rite

Fr. Grzegorz Brodacki, O.Cist.

“Holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way.” We find this statement in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the last ecumenical council (§4). Here many will say, not without irony, that the subsequent radical reform of the Roman rite (or rather its destruction followed by the creation of something completely new) showed very well what such “preservation in the future and fostering in every way” mean in practice. However, such an abandonment of an existing rite, even though not to such extent and not on the universal level, is not something unprecedented in the history of the Church’s liturgy. In the course of the 17th century the Cistercian Order almost unanimously abandoned its rite of the Mass so as to accept the Roman rite with few features of their own rite.

What were the reasons for which the authorities of the Order decided to stop using the proper Cistercian rite? To answer to that question, we must know something about its history and its character.

The Cistercian Order was founded in 1098 in Burgundy in France out of a desire to renew the monastic life by returning to the literal adherence to the Rule of Saint Benedict. However, while the Rule speaks much about the structure of the canonical hours, it is completely silent about the rite of the Mass. What is more, Saint Benedict does not even indicate how often the Mass should be celebrated in the monastery. So, the first generations of the Cistercian monks had to find other principles to arrange the rite of their Mass. One of the principles was authenticity; they decided to use only renowned sources. This mainly regards the textual layer of the rite. The chant books were copied in Metz which at that time enjoyed the reputation of having the purest Gregorian tradition. Also, the texts of the missal (called at that time the “sacramentary”) were taken from the most respected churches of Burgundy.

Other principles were simplicity and poverty. One can say that properly these two principles shaped mostly the external layer of the Cistercian rite. The substance of the rite – taken from the existing monastic customs and from neighbouring churches – remained intact, but the Cistercians decided to remove or simplify all that they saw as accidental and superfluous.

Let us take a look at a typical conventual mass celebrated every day at a Cistercian abbey. The first difference with respect to the other rites at the time was the scarcity of ministers: for Sundays and feasts the priest was accompanied by a deacon and subdeacon, while on ordinary days even the subdeacon was unnecessary.

Just after the preparatory prayers at the foot of the altar, the ministers proceeded to the preparation of the chalice, but the pouring of the water was reserved to the priest. Once the lesson had been sung, the subdeacon could join the choir to help in singing.

Hauterive

Before the gospel, the deacon asked the abbot for his blessing. After the Credo, the deacon brought the sacred vessels (let us remember – these already contained the wine with water) to the altar, but there was no special offertory prayer other than In spiritu humilitatis. Then, only on feast days and only at this moment, incense was used. The way of incensing was quite curious: the priest traced a circle over the offerings with the thurible, then incensed the right side of the altar, the left one and again the right and the left side of the base of the altar. After that, he gave the thurible to the deacon who in turn incensed the right side of the altar cross and then went behind the altar to the left side to do the same there.

The Canon of the mass was substantially identical to its counterparts elsewhere. It is important however to point out two particularities: first, the elevation of the sacred species was introduced somehow reluctantly and gradually, so it became universal only in the 15th century. Secondly, kneeling was practiced to a limited degree. The community knelt down for the Canon only on ferial days, while the sacred ministers did not kneel ever.

The Pater noster was followed by a series of prayers for peace and, at least at the beginning, for the reconquest of the Holy Land. Also, the way of distribution of the Holy Communion was quite remarkable. The sign of peace was given uniquely to those who were to receive Communion. In conformity with the Rule of Saint Benedict, the monks approached the altar by seniority, they knelt on the highest degree and received the species of bread directly on the tongue. Similarly, kneeling on the left side of the altar, they drank the consecrated wine without touching with their hands the chalice held by the deacon and subdeacon. Then they passed to the sacristan standing between the altar and choir and drank a little bit of unconsecrated wine in order to “purify themselves,” probably from the possible remnants of the sacred species in the mouth.

At this point the role of the celebrant was practically over. He had only to wash his hands at the piscina (i.e. a kind of a little well placed at the right side of the altar), recite the postcommunion prayer, and then could go back to the sacristy, with no final blessing, which is noteworthy. In the meanwhile, the sacred ministers were occupied with purification of the sacred vessels, not upon the altar but at the ministerium (i.e. credence table). The rite of purification was quite complex: it consisted of several ablutions with wine and water and even of licking the paten.

Even this summary description of the Cistercian Mass gives one an idea of the extreme simplicity and sobriety of the medieval rite. However, not only this was its weak point. The situation was even more difficult, since there was no detailed and exhaustive description of its ceremonies. Actually, the medieval Usus contained special chapters speaking about various types of the mass (conventual with two ministers, conventual with one minister, private mass), but those descriptions were anything but complete and satisfying. As long as the Order was vivacious, conscious of the richness of its proper tradition, the new generations of priests were taught the rite by their elders. By contrast, after the Council of Trent, when a new generation of men joined the Order, the sense of the Order’s own identity, expressed in large part by liturgical customs, faded more and more. Those men knew almost exclusively the post-Trent Roman rite which at that time was spreading with astonishing success, enjoyed the authority of the pontiff, corresponded to the spiritual tastes and needs of the epoch and, last but not least, was meticulously described.

We can suppose that all those factors provoked a gradual abandonment of the medieval Cistercian rite. The first step towards its romanisation, made 1611, was a permission to say private masses according to the Roman missal granted to the monks of the Order. To facilitate that new possibility, in 1617 the Roman Ritus servandus was inserted into the new edition of the Cistercian missal, since there was no Cistercian counterpart to it. In the following year the general chapter formally adopted the Roman Ritus celebrandi. Liturgical unrest was in the air. Claude Vaussin, who was elected general abbot in 1645, decided to publish liturgical books that would put an end to the increasing liturgical confusion, and doubtlessly also to the fights between the “traditionalists” and the partisans of the Romeward trend. Eventually, in 1656 under his authority the Breviarium cisterciense juxta Romanum was published, and one year later came the analogous Missale cisterciense juxta novissimam Romani recognitum correctionem. Thus, the traditional Cistercian rite (with the small exception of the Congregation of Castile) ceased to exist. While the romanisation was not total and complete, as there remained, for example, several Cistercian features for the rites of Holy Week, the rite’s substance was henceforth purely Roman.

During the first half of the 20th century there was a considerable renewal of the Cistercian Order in both branches (the Strict and Common Observances) which led at least three monasteries (Hauterive, Poblet, and the now-closed Boquen) to restore the primitive rite that had fallen into disuse, but even those attempts ended in a debacle after the introduction of St. Paul VI’s Novus Ordo Missae.

As we can see, the necessity of protecting the liturgical richness of the Church has not only been urgent in our own times. Undeniably, the abolition of the traditional Roman rite was something unusual in the history of the Church; however, the abandonment of the primitive Cistercian rite shows to us a phenomenon which differed only in scope, not in quality. The lesson that we can take from this is that every liturgical tradition is worthy of protection and cultivation. Nowadays many speak about regionalization, decentralization, and the exaltation of minorities, but few are able to apply these principles to the liturgical life of the Church. If we believe that the Holy Spirit leads the Church and inspires various communities growing in Her bosom to express their faith, their charism, and their way of life, even through liturgical forms, a blind unification cannot be understood as anything other than a big mistake and a deep impoverishment.

Fr. Grzegorz Brodacki, O.Cist. is a priest and monk of the Cistercian Archabbey of Jędrzejów in Poland.