at Columbia University
October 1, 1997
- John-Paul II has had a long-time interest in marriage and family issues. As a young priest in the 1940's, he set up a family therapy institute in Krakow.
- In the first few years of his papacy, he delivered the well-known "Wednesday evening" lectures, cutting-edge talks on the subjects of the book of Genesis, and on Humanae Vitae.
- The pope has been profoundly inspired by the first three chapters of Genesis. These are written in pre-scientific Hebrew idiom, that is, they are "history in mythological language." There are two different accounts of the creation of human beings. In chapter 1, Adam and Eve are created at the same time, and God's first instruction to humankind is to go out and multiply. In chapter 2, Eve is created after Adam, to his great delight. These two chapters contain the two principles of marriage:
2. Our own good. (We need companionship, and are incomplete by ourselves.)
Or, in other words, "babies and bonding".
- Today we have a therapeutic culture that places great emphasis on self-realization. Nevertheless, we still find ourselves by stepping outside of ourselves. Human beings have a deep need to give themselves totally. According to Church teaching, we all have this vocation although very few of us are called to make a total gift of self directly to God, i.e. celibacy. Most are called to give ourselves to another in marriage. In the spiritual arithmatic of marriage, 1 + 1 equals, not 2, but 1.
- In the 1940's, 50's and 60's, Carol Wojtila (our present pope), wrote a number of avant-garde plays. One of the best of these, The Jeweler's Shop, tells the story of three married couples. One of the wives attempts to sell her wedding ring at the shop, but the jeweler has a "special scale" that will not weigh a wedding ring if the would-be seller's spouse is still alive. Marriage is a vocation that lasts until death.
- Our culture is driven by feeling, not by belief in vocation. My grandparents' situation was very different. Their marriage was arranged, as were all the marriages in the European village where they lived. Although it is surprising to us, these marriages were generally happy. With no possibility of divorce, couple committed themselves to making their marriages work.
- John-Paul II's teachings concerning sex are countercultural. For one thing, he sees sex as a mystery, in contrast to today's tendency to reduce sexuality to its biological processes. Moreover, he sees sex as being intrinsically deep. The entire person, body and soul, is involved, whether you like it or not. Our culture has tried very hard to make sex casual. Part of the problem is the attitude of the culture toward the human body, that the "real self" is like the ghost inside the machine. The body is considered to be merely an appendage or container.
However, you cannot separate personhood and the body. We are what we do with our bodies. Sex is intrinsically self-giving and self-revealing (sexual partners have special knowledge of each other). For this reason, sexual self- indulgence can be especially damaging, more than other forms of sensual self-indulgence.
- John-Paul also sees sex as essentially good. Sex is so intense that humanity has tended to be deeply suspicious of it.
- In the past 30 years, there has been a dramatic change in the attitude toward having babies in this country. The birth rate is half what it was in the 1950's. We have been below the population replacement rate since 1973. The same trend has occurred in all the developed countries. The Church recognizes that there are indeed overpopulation problems in some areas of the world, but holds that these should be handled in a non-coercive manner.
- Sex is an expression of love. It is the act of sexual intercourse that seals the gift of self. This is the reason that a marriage that has never been consummated can be annulled. The marriage has never been completed, the couple has not done what they promised to do with each other.
- Sex should always be aimed at the other. It is truly "making love". According to St. Thomas Aquinas, "Love is to will the good of another."
- The search for self-fulfillment through sex inevitably leads to manipulation of the other, and eventually to boredom. If you treat another person as an object, objects are finite and we can tire of them. Each person, on the other hand, is unique and unrepeatable.
- In presenting the Church's teachings, the catechism produced at the Council of Trent used a top-down approach, with an emphasis on God's authority. This is a legitimate approach, but it is not well received by moderns with their dislike of authority. The new catechism has a personalist approach. The Pope has stated that behind every "no" in the Commandments, there is a "yes". God is only offended by those acts which are not for man's own good. The Ten Commandments offer guidance in how to live well. We, as a culture, have stopped reading the instructions.
- The sexual revolution has not made people happier. Even in terms of physical health, we are worse off. When I was a school child I was warned about two sexually transmitted diseases, both of which were easily treatable. There are now 35 STD's.
- The Church has been accused of being obsessed with sex. However, she has an obligation to warn people of the dangers of the abuse of sex. When you mess up in this area, you mess up big.
- Our culture has made a mistake in driving a wedge between babies and bonding. The two are meant to go together. Artificial contraception sets limits on self-giving. In so doing, it changes the nature of the act by creating distance between the partners. The term "barrier method" is very apt.
- I wish someone would write a good history of the pill. When it was being developed they tested both male and female versions. Both worked, but the treatment caused secondary effects in men. The researchers then discontinued work on a men's pill, and moved the program to Puerto Rico where they resumed research on women. Three of their subjects died.
The pill was supposed to help marriage. However, there was an explosion of divorce in the 1960's, after the introduction of the pill. The use of the pill put the focus on pleasure and resulted in the use of the other person as an object. Consequently, people became bored with their marriages.
- Natural Family Planning (NFP) is entirely different in nature. None of the couples I know who use NFP can imagine abandoning it. Couples using NFP never complain about sex, and they do not get bored. NFP requires periodic abstinence, but they say, "Abstinence is the best aphrodesiac." The divorce rate among couples who use NFP is 1%.
- For all our interest in things natural today, we think nothing of filling our own bodies with chemicals. Even the feminist Germaine Greer in the 1970's objected to artifical birth control on the grounds that it turned women into pharmacies.
- Unlike the pill, NFP requires the involvement of both spouses. Moreover, it is 99% effective, the same level of success as the most effective pill (and the more effective the form of the pill, the more serious its side effects).
- John-Paul's personalist approach to sex requires both love and self-restraint. This contrasts with the modernist's impersonal attitude. Darwin has been especially influential in the dehumanization of sex because his theory led people to think of themselves as mere animals. If we are animals, why not behave as such? Aldous Huxley stated that the reason that he and other intellectuals embraced modernism was that it gave them license to unlimited sex.
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Additional comments made during the question and answer session:
Q- Catholic theologian Charles Curran asked why it should not be acceptable to use contraception within a marriage on an occasional basis, provided that the marriage remained generally open to children.
A- The problem with this approach is that it separates body and soul. Also, the same argument can be applied to anything. Why not occasional adultery or sodomy, provided that the marriage is generally faithful?
Curran's approach derives from consequentialism, the idea that anything is okay provided that the consequences are good. All morality is subject to manipulation in this mode of thought, because it rejects the idea that acts can be intrinsically good or evil.
Q- Do married couples have a duty to have as many children as possible?
A- The term 'munus', which has usually been translated as 'duty', is more accurately rendered as 'gift' (as in munificent) and 'mission'. The Church does not specify how many children you should have, but you should be generous. Also, the best gift you can give a child is siblings. It is good for children to have siblings. It teaches them that they are not the center of the world; they learn how to share and respect the needs of others.
Q- What about using condoms not for contraceptive purposes but as protection against AIDS?
A- Condoms are not very effective in preventing pregnancy, and they do not function very well as prophylactics either. The AIDS virus is smaller than a sperm, and there is a debate going on as to whether it is able to penetrate the latex of a condom. In any case, condoms can be defective, they can slip off during use, and the latex can degrade. In short, they may slow the rate of transmission of AIDS, but they do not prevent it.
Q- What about infertile couples?
A- A marriage is not diminished if the couple is unable to have children. Their love can radiate outward to others, which is what marital love is designed to do.
A comment from a member of the audience: The high divorce rate among contracepting couples is unsurprising. They are conspiring together against God. Since there is no honor among thieves, they don't trust each other either.
Notes by Sara Frear, reviewed by Sim Johnston