Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The mechanics (or not) of love

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An acquaintance of mine is in a difficult, although I’m afraid, common, situation.  He is Catholic, his wife is not.  He desires to follow the teachings of the Church; she is not necessarily driven by that same desire.  Their firstborn child is less than a year old and they would like to know when the wife’s fertility will return so that they can get their feet back underneath themselves (for readers who might not have children yet . . . an infant changes one’s life more than one can possibly imagine and some couples thrive on the change while others need relatively more time to
reach an equilibrium) before any more babies come along. 

The thing is though, when a wife does not know if she is fertile or not and her husband cannot confidently guide his wife’s interpretations of her body’s natural signs and symptoms of fertility then what happens to said couple’s frequency of, and attitude toward, making love?   Unfortunately, my anecdotal evidence (from this and other “case studies”) reveals that frequency drops to “zero” and their attitude turns to “crazy-asinine-risky.” 

But is this the inevitable outcome when at least one spouse is striving to follow the wisdom of Blessed Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, when he wrote that every instance of husband and wife making love must climax in a way that is open to the possibility of new life (see numbers 11 & 12)?

Are faithful Catholics invariably signing up for marriages where spouses go for prolonged periods of fearful abstinence?  No. 

So what are couples such as my buddy and his wife supposed to honestly do in situations?  Well, let’s look at the options:

A)        Keep on keeping on. 

But does this jive with the reality that sacramental marriage between baptized Christians is a channel of grace so that Christ’s love for the Church can be known in the midst of world that does otherwise see his divine love (Eph 5:32)?  Or that Jesus is the Good Shepherd come so that his flock may have life in abundance (Jn 10:10)?  I don’t think so.

B)        Do what most everyone else is doing out there: use hormonal contraception or a barrier method.

But what about the pesky insight that deliberately contraceptive acts are “intrinsically wrong” because they separate the two inbuilt realities (babies and bonding) communicated by spouses when making love?  Hmmm.

C)        Double down and really make sure we understood what they were teaching when we learned Natural Family Planning (NFP) prior to getting married.

This does, however, assume that spouses already were taught the basics and know them and have a good grasp of them.  But even if they do not, they can be brought up to speed relatively quickly.  While this certainly entails some work, it seems doable given that all sorts of venues exist for learning NFP or increasing one’s knowledge of how to chart during the objectively more difficult time of breastfeeding/postpartum.   

Option A and C are relatively self-explanatory, I believe.  It is option B, which is not really a viable possibility for those following a well-formed conscience, that I think perplexes Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the world today.  So maybe a brief explanation:

The marital embrace has two “inherent significances” (Humanae vitae 12) that cannot be split apart without necessarily encountering pain/sorrow/woe/anguish far worse than prolonged periods of fear-induced abstinence. But what’s the big deal about the marital embrace anyway? Why this prohibition on contraception with a simultaneous affirmation of NFP?

The conjugal act is not a mechanism; one can’t take it apart and put it back together as one wishes, with or without all its parts. It is rather an organic reality, the significances of which can’t be removed from each other. Without an openness to the procreative meaning of the act, the unitive meaning just isn’t there either. The act is a whole, meaning that it is more than the sum of its parts. We don’t just check off a list of what we want to get out of it each time.

Contraception treats the marital embrace as if it were mechanical and artificial. It’s as if we could choose a part we don’t like and take it out of the equation. And, not incidentally, the attitude behind contraception treats the woman as if she too were mechanical: we don’t like this part of her body, so we’ll just make it obsolete.

NFP, on the other hand, looks at not only the marital embrace as a whole, but also each of the persons involved as organic wholes. Life has a natural rhythm and pattern to it that we can learn and respect, which is, by the way, properly what dominion is. We need not be afraid of the natural; we need instead to know and respect it.

Which, then, is human, Christian, married love more like, a machine or an organic reality?  If the latter you say, then we are onto something big and hopefully it is beginning to make sense why we cannot even for one instance of making love with our spouse separate the prospect of baby making from our profound union through sexual intimacy.  For to do so would be to treat our bodies, souls and married love as if it were a robotic assembly line product simply interchangeable with other parts if the situation demands.

The Good News though is that if ever we have mistaken the mechanical for the organic, Love Himself stands ready to resurrect our married love and turn our sorrow into joy.                


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