By Fr. Patrick J. Fiorillo
(Homily delivered at St. Paul Parish - Cambridge, MA, October 14th, 2018)
Today the Church honors a man whom many consider to be a modern-day prophet. Fifty years ago, just as the sexual revolution was in full swing, he predicted that four things would happen in society if the Church’s teachings on marital love were not embraced:
1. A general lowering of moral standards.
2. A rise in marital infidelity.
3. A lessening of respect for women by men.
4. A coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.
This man is Pope Paul VI, and he was canonized a saint earlier today in Rome by Pope Francis. These four predictions, which Paul VI made in his famous encyclical Humanae vitae, have not only come true, but they came true sooner and to a far greater extent than anyone, including Paul VI himself, would have ever imagined. If you find yourself skeptical of the claim that these predications have come true, look no further than the $12 billion pornography industry, which is based primarily on the objectification and exploitation of women.
At Humanae vitae’s release in 1968, it was met with scorn and ridicule. Today it seems pathetically antiquated to most people and laughable to the world that the Church actually still maintains her teaching against the use of artificial contraception. So what relevance, if any, do the teachings of Humanae vitae have for us today – 50 years later – on its author’s canonization?
The encyclical’s fundamental goal is not to impose a moral norm, but rather to provide a total vision of the human person and an answer to the question, “What do certain actions mean?” By asking that very question, we have already delved into controversial philosophical territory. The dominant philosophy in our present culture is nominalism, which maintains that things do not carry an objective, intrinsic existence; the meaning of things only comes from what our minds assign to them. To the nominalist, I am free to assign meaning to things as I please, because nothing carries an objective existence or meaning outside of my mind.
But this doesn’t work in Catholic theology. We believe in a God who, though invisible, really exists. And through divine revelation, we can know objective truths about God in such a way that our knowledge of him is not simply a product of my thoughts or feelings, or imagination. A Christian must be rooted in a metaphysical understanding of reality. In the Aristotelian tradition of realism inherited and perfected by Saint Thomas Aquinas, things have real existence in themselves and carry objective meaning that I am not free to assign on my own.
Therefore, marital love carries a specific meaning that is discoverable by philosophy and confirmed by revelation. Marital love is the exclusive and total giving of self between husband and wife. The marital act is a particular physical expression of that, through which spouses speak their wedding vows to each other with their body. This is why we say that a couple consummates their vows; instead of verbalizing the words they first declared to one another at the altar on their wedding day, the spouses speak those words to one another through their bodies. This is completely distinct from animals. Human love is a free act, proceeding from the intellect and the will, involving both body and soul. It would therefore be contradictory to the very inner meaning of marital love if a couple were to say to one another, “I give myself to you totally and freely: everything that I have and all that I am… except my fertility, except my potential to be a parent with you.” Spousal love, which by its very nature involves total self-giving, admits of no exceptions.
The Church does not teach that couples must have as many children as physically possible, nor is the Church interested in imposing arbitrary restrictions on people’s private lives. The teachings of the Church, reiterated in Humanae vitae, exist to give spouses the freedom to give of themselves fully to each other so that they can experience the full depths of marital love. The sexual revolution promised freedom and liberation. But it was a radicalization of the good feminist movement of the earlier 20th century. So instead of new freedom, it has brought about the enslavement of men and women to their passions and the further degradation of women. Again, if you question that claim, look no further than the $12 billion pornography industry.
I recommend Humanae vitae for everyone to read because we are all suffering the effects of a culture that has rejected its teachings outright. While it is the most controversial encyclical of modern times, it is also one of the shortest encyclicals. The beauty of its simple and succinct message is that it applies to everyone, both married and unmarried. Humanae vitae teaches everyone that because we are made out of love we are made for love: love that is free – not simply acting upon passions but fully human and intelligent; we are made for love that is total – that seeks the good of the other and holds nothing back; love that is faithful and love that bears fruit in the lives of others. These are Paul VI’s four characteristics of authentic human love. It’s the only love that satisfies: free, total, faithful, and fruitful.
All of what I’ve said thus far belongs to natural law and does not require Christian faith to believe. Nonetheless, it is affirmed and deepened by divine revelation. We only need to look at the person of Jesus Christ, who is love incarnate. Jesus Christ is mystically married to the Church. And this mystical marriage was consummated on the cross; it was at that moment when Christ gave himself freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully for his beloved bride, holding nothing back. That is perfect love. That is the love we are called to imitate.
Sound impossible? Well, it is – on merely human terms. Like the rich young man in today’s Gospel, we too can be tempted to walk away from Jesus’s invitation to enter upon the path of perfection. It is certainly discouraging when most people around us see this path as impossible and unreasonable. But Jesus’s invitation is not an invitation to impose new rules on one’s life. It is an invitation to respond to grace that is freely offered to us, to follow Christ in faith and hope, and to entrust every little part of our lives to his plan of loving goodness.
Pope Saint Paul VI, pray for us.
Fr. Patrick J. Fiorillo was ordained a priest in 2016. He was appointed Spiritual Director of Pure in Heart America in 2017, and currently serves as parochial vicar of St. Paul Parish in Cambridge, MA, and as the undergraduate chaplain of the Harvard Catholic Center where he works with FOCUS missionaries. When his mind needs a break from theology, Father Patrick continues to play the drums in Vatican III, a jazz-funk quintet comprised of musicians who met in seminary.