Lent: Back to Eden

“Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.”
–G.K. Chesterton, Introduction to The Defendant

Somehow Lent always seems to lead me, in one way or another, toward Eden.

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.

Mike Wallace interviews Margaret Sanger, Eugenicist
Canonization Cause Opens: for African American Born Priest
George Will: the “boying” of men
Msgr. Pope: Do We Need a New Word for Marriage?
Ignatian Insight: “We Own You, You Puritanical Homophobic Religious Nuts”
Stephen Barr: Science, Reason and Catholic Faith
Bookworm: Do Liberals Need a Linguist?
No Wiggle Room: On Constraception, Abortion, Gay Marriage, Divorce.
Longenecker: Infant of Prague, and Childhood Innocence
Mary’s Aggies: What Campus Ministry Can Do
Body Scans at Airports: Muslim Women Refuse
Sister Anne Flanagan: Body Scanners violate … the spousal meaning of the body
Notre Dame: Stop Being So Catholic
The Future: of the Gay Marriage Debate

Genesis, Evolution and Trust in the Great Quest
King, Bridegroom, Self-Immolating Lover
Who Told You That You Were Naked

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Manny L.

    “Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.”
    –G.K. Chesterton, Introduction to The Defendant

    That is a great quote, and certainly worth using.

    I will have to say, I don’t agree with the Catholic position on contraceptives. I understand why, but it just doesn’t wash with me. It didn’t for William F. Buckley either.

    I saw that George Will piece this morning, and completely agree. Will is the best!

  • Stefanie

    Elizabeth, what a powerful reminder of the reason why the Church calls both the sacrament of marriage and the sacrament of holy orders ones “at the service of communion and mission.” (per the CCC Compendium) True communion. True mission. Both require complete sacrifice to the Other (Divine) and to the other (spouse/Church). Instead, we insist the focus be on our own needs, our own wants — not God’s.

  • Bertha

    Fr. Longenecker is very perceptive. And while our Catholic vision of the human person, sexuality, celibacy and marriage is certainly the anti-dote to the sensate culture of death, I am wondering when our bishops will figure out that we do not need another document on marriage.
    Too late. They already published one, and squandered the faithful’s cathedraticum taxes. It will either sit on church bookshelves (like so many others of the last 40 years) or find its way to the circular file.
    Our teaching has been eloquent and clear from 1965 on, with some embellishment, notably Famliaris consortio and the Theology of the Body. But we have taken no significant, sustained action to reverse the dissolution of marriage & family in our communion.
    Recently Pope Benedict, following in the steps of John Paul the Great, performed another hand-wringing ceremony at the Roman Rota about declarations of nullity. Yes, annulments are a scandal. But it takes 4 or more years to form a priest for Orders; it takes less than 48 hours to “prepare” a couple for marriage today. And we call it a vocation??
    We have 3 other opportunities to evangelize and strengthen the domestic church: infant baptism, first reconciliation and eucharist, and confirmation – not counting the catechesis of children (See Familiaris consortio, no 65). You cannot presume all couples have a deep devotion to the Eucharist, nor communicate their faith to their children.
    Regardless, if we do not re-think our formation of marriage & family and institutionalize a path of evangelization and catechization of couples/parents, we will likely continue to have overworked tribunals. And just as likely, few viable celibate OR conjugal vocations.
    (Bertha’s husband)

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    Manny — as good as he was, Buckley was confused on a few things. And it is abundantly clear that that confusion has been transferred to and multiplied in his son Christopher.

  • Manny L.

    “Manny — as good as he was, Buckley was confused on a few things. And it is abundantly clear that that confusion has been transferred to and multiplied in his son Christopher.” -Bender

    Oh I’m sure Buckley is not the authority on all things, and his son is not what I had hoped. Still I have a hard time accepting the notion of no contraceptive. In this day and age, we are just asking for unwanted pregnancies. I am adamently against abortion, so then we have a bunch of unwanted children growing up in dysfunctional families, and are themselves dysfunctional.

    Plus, there are times a husband and wife, how should I put this, want to have some relations without having a child. ;)

  • dry valleys

    Not to mention the people in developing countries who can’t provide for the children they have, let alone more.

    For some people, sex is one of the only pleasures they have, given how little they can afford to do or is available otherwise. It is more or less universal for people to want to control their fertility, even in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa women are having fewer children because they realise that contraception works for them much as our grandmothers did, & I think we’ve moved on greatly since the good old days.

    We need two income households & few children because of, erm, that neoliberal economic policy which conservatives support, which crashed & burned in 2008. My great-grandfather, an unskilled manual labourer, was able to support his 11 children on what was considered at the time to be a derisory wage. You wouldn’t find that happening now.

    I can’t imagine myself being a good parent. I think there is quite a chance that I would mess up my children’s upbringing. So, were I to get married, it would have to be to someone who didn’t want to be a mother (of whom, of course, there are many).

    You see more people having several children amongst Asian communities, & the white underclass. Are they really exemplars of how life should be lived? No, in my view, the really selfish & irresponsible thing is to have children who will do nothing but spend their lives on welfare or in prison, rather than thinking through whether you’re fit for this parenting business. Is it not a serious concern that shouldn’t be rushed into?

    Yet I would not support people being condemned to lives of celibacy, which some people enjoy but most don’t, for that.

  • dry valleys

    Probably a mistake to write comments disagreeing with what most readers think rather than seeking a quiet life. But I am going out clubbing tonight so I’m not too likely to see any responses. :)

    [As usual, and for reasons I cannot explain (perhaps it's because you're writing from the UK? You ended up in my spam filter; I was out all day so I only just rescued it. You're never ignored, but often misrouted! :-) -admin]

  • Mary

    In what day and age has it ever been easy to either accept the consequences of an act or refrain from engaging it in?

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    Manny — what you say makes perfect sense . . . from a utilitarian perspective. But the teaching on contraception is not based on utilitarianism.

  • Manny L.

    “Manny — what you say makes perfect sense . . . from a utilitarian perspective. But the teaching on contraception is not based on utilitarianism.” -Bender

    I understand. In my very first comment in this thread I said I understand the Church’s position.

  • Greta

    If anyone ever doubts the fact that the Pope has Christ at his side protecting the church, it should be removed when you read Pope Paul VI and Humanae Vitae. The day it was released you had a thunderouse response from the left including bishops and priest denouncing it. Yet everything the Pope said would result has happened probably faster than he would have thought possible. He was right on every point in the changes that contraception widely used has brought about.

  • dry valleys

    Yes, I knew you would let me through, I just thought there would be objections to what I said. I’m glad that hasn;t happened, because I’m in no fit state to answer my critics back this morning :)

    [Well, boyo, as we age, it gets that much harder to deal with the mornings after a night with the creature! -admin]

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