“Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.”
–G.K. Chesterton, Introduction to The Defendant
This year -and coinciding with a Lent that seems to be all about re-appreciating family- I find myself back in Eden thanks to this thoughtful piece about birth control and its effect on vocations, including the vocation to marriage.
Writes Fr. Dwight Longenecker:
The second shift due to contraception is buried more deeply within the observable societal changes. We have experienced a radical change in the deeper understanding and expectations of marriage. Before the sexual revolution, a young Catholic boy or girl experienced a family context in which being a husband or wife, father or mother, would have demanded a natural kind of self sacrifice.
In most families, the man would have worked hard to support a wife and many children, and the woman would have given her life in bringing up a large family. Both the man and woman were expected to lay down their lives in a vocation of self-sacrifice, and the Catholic young man or woman would have accepted this vocation within marriage as the norm.
It was within this context of self-sacrificial family life that a young man or woman’s vocation to the priesthood or religious life would have been formed. The young person therefore did not question the demand for a life of self-sacrifice; it was assumed that this was the foundation of a good life. The question, then, was which manner of sacrifice is best for the individual: Dying to self through marriage and family, or dying to self through a religious vocation? [emphasis mine-admin]
Now, because of artificial contraception, the whole underlying assumptions and expectations about marriage have shifted. Marriage is no longer a way to give all, but a way to have it all. Therefore, when a young person today considers a religious vocation, they are not choosing between different paths of self-sacrifice; they are choosing between a life that seems to have it all and a life that seems to have nothing. They must choose between a home in the suburbs, 2.5 nice children, and a double income or total self denial. The choice is between a familiar form of hedonism or an inexplicable form of heroism.
We too often forget that marriage is not simply a “lifechoice” but every bit as much of a vocation, and a calling, as any other; because it is most common, it is mistakenly thought to be “ordinary” or “unheroic,” but just as being a priest or nun is a state of “being,” beyond mere “doing,” so is marriage and parenthood. “Doing” has a quit time and days off. “Being” does not.
Just as a priest, once ordained, is a priest forever -one with Christ and his church- and a solemnly professed nun is “one” with her espoused Christ, a married couple is “one flesh” before God, and their union is a particularly potent reflection of the literal and true marriage that has taken place between heaven and earth, between Christ the Bridegroom and His Own. The priest and the nun serve the whole Body of Christ, but the married couple (whose vows, if Jesus is to be believed, are also “forever”) manifests for our instruction and edification the passionate, romantic and self-immolating love that God pours out for his creatures.
When Christ spilled his blood on Calvery, he said, “it is consummated.” The new covenant instituted by Christ is a marriage; in it, we see the total giving of self, by the God-man Creator; in giving us his life, his sweat, his blood, his water, Christ says, “I have emptied myself in you, that you may trust enough to give your full self to me, so that we may be one.” The blood covenant between God and Man used to be reflected in the blood covenant between a bridegroom and his bride, before the notions of chastity became punchlines for perpetual adolescents, virginity was sneered at as “baggage” and the human body dismissed as an envelope with appendages.
Both covenants were and are life-giving and life-affirming. They say: this will continue; this love will go on, in constant new beginnings. This love will never die.
For God’s part, we know his Love is everlasting, and will never die; on the human side, however, we have lost sight of what it means to love “forever.” We have lost touch with the notion that the gifts of love do not end with ourselves, and our own satisfaction. Thinking of children as “choices” and quasi-accessories, we devalue them as the blessings of that outpouring of self-perpetuating love.
In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI said contraception would destroy the human family; not just the nuclear family, not just the Catholic family, not just the African-American Family, or the Irish or Italian family, but the entire “human” family. It has. No wonder people are killing themselves because they don’t believe they can find unconditional love, when it is right before our eyes.
How can they believe in a love that goes on, when at younger and younger ages, the only message they hear is gratify yourselves without fear of self-perpetuation. Love isn’t even in the equation anymore.
What a diminishment. We have so distorted the sacrificial meaning of marriage, that we cannot find heaven within it. Our eyes are changed. We are still blind to Eden.
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Stephen Barr: Science, Reason and Catholic Faith
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No Wiggle Room: On Constraception, Abortion, Gay Marriage, Divorce.
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