Thursday, October 29, 2009

Benedict XVI on the Shroud of Turin: an invitation to recognize the face of God

He said that the coming exposition of the Shroud on May 2010 ""will provide an appropriate moment to contemplate that mysterious face which silently speaks to the hearts of men, inviting them to recognize therein the face of God."


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Catholic Church and science

How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.

From the role of the monks (they did much more than just copy manuscripts) to art and architecture, from the university to Western law, from science to charitable work, from international law to economics, the book delves into just how indebted we are as a civilization to the Catholic Church, whether we realize it or not.

By far the book’s longest chapter is "The Church and Science." We have all heard a great deal about the Church’s alleged hostility toward science. What most people fail to realize is that historians of science have spent the past half-century drastically revising this conventional wisdom, arguing that the Church’s role in the development of Western science was far more salutary than previously thought. I am speaking not about Catholic apologists but about serious and important scholars of the history of science such as J.L. Heilbron, A.C. Crombie, David Lindberg, Edward Grant, and Thomas Goldstein.

It is all very well to point out that important scientists, like Louis Pasteur, have been Catholic. More revealing is how many priests have distinguished themselves in the sciences. It turns out, for instance, that the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body was Fr. Giambattista Riccioli. The man who has been called the father of Egyptology was Fr. Athanasius Kircher (also called "master of a hundred arts" for the breadth of his knowledge). Fr. Roger Boscovich, who has been described as "the greatest genius that Yugoslavia ever produced," has often been called the father of modern atomic theory.

In the sciences it was the Jesuits in particular who distinguished themselves; some 35 craters on the moon, in fact, are named after Jesuit scientists and mathematicians.

By the eighteenth century, the Jesuits

had contributed to the development of pendulum clocks, pantographs, barometers, reflecting telescopes and microscopes, to scientific fields as various as magnetism, optics and electricity. They observed, in some cases before anyone else, the colored bands on Jupiter’s surface, the Andromeda nebula and Saturn’s rings. They theorized about the circulation of the blood (independently of Harvey), the theoretical possibility of flight, the way the moon effected the tides, and the wave-like nature of light. Star maps of the southern hemisphere, symbolic logic, flood-control measures on the Po and Adige rivers, introducing plus and minus signs into Italian mathematics – all were typical Jesuit achievements, and scientists as influential as Fermat, Huygens, Leibniz and Newton were not alone in counting Jesuits among their most prized correspondents [Jonathan Wright, The Jesuits, 2004, p. 189].

Seismology, the study of earthquakes, has been so dominated by Jesuits that it has become known as "the Jesuit science." It was a Jesuit, Fr. J.B. Macelwane, who wrote Introduction to Theoretical Seismology, the first seismology textbook in America, in 1936. To this day, the American Geophysical Union, which Fr. Macelwane once headed, gives an annual medal named after this brilliant priest to a promising young geophysicist.

The Jesuits were also the first to introduce Western science into such far-off places as China and India. In seventeenth-century China in particular, Jesuits introduced a substantial body of scientific knowledge and a vast array of mental tools for understanding the physical universe, including the Euclidean geometry that made planetary motion comprehensible. Jesuits made important contributions to the scientific knowledge and infrastructure of other less developed nations not only in Asia but also in Africa and Central and South America. Beginning in the nineteenth century, these continents saw the opening of Jesuit observatories that studied such fields as astronomy, geomagnetism, meteorology, seismology, and solar physics. Such observatories provided these places with accurate time keeping, weather forecasts (particularly important in the cases of hurricanes and typhoons), earthquake risk assessments, and cartography. In Central and South America the Jesuits worked primarily in meteorology and seismology, essentially laying the foundations of those disciplines there. The scientific development of these countries, ranging from Ecuador to Lebanon to the Philippines, is indebted to Jesuit efforts.

The Galileo case is often cited as evidence of Catholic hostility toward science, and How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization accordingly takes a closer look at the Galileo matter. For now, just one little-known fact: Catholic cathedrals in Bologna, Florence, Paris, and Rome were constructed to function as solar observatories. No more precise instruments for observing the sun’s apparent motion could be found anywhere in the world. When Johannes Kepler posited that planetary orbits were elliptical rather than circular, Catholic astronomer Giovanni Cassini verified Kepler’s position through observations he made in the Basilica of San Petronio in the heart of the Papal States. Cassini, incidentally, was a student of Fr. Riccioli and Fr. Francesco Grimaldi, the great astronomer who also discovered the diffraction of light, and even gave the phenomenon its name.

I’ve tried to fill the book with little-known facts like these.

To say that the Church played a positive role in the development of science has now become absolutely mainstream, even if this new consensus has not yet managed to trickle down to the general public. In fact, Stanley Jaki, over the course of an extraordinary scholarly career, has developed a compelling argument that in fact it was important aspects of the Christian worldview that accounted for why it was in the West that science enjoyed the success it did as a self-sustaining enterprise. Non-Christian cultures did not possess the same philosophical tools, and in fact were burdened by conceptual frameworks that hindered the development of science. Jaki extends this thesis to seven great cultures: Arabic, Babylonian, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Hindu, and Maya. In these cultures, Jaki explains, science suffered a "stillbirth." My book gives ample attention to Jaki’s work.

Economic thought is another area in which more and more scholars have begun to acknowledge the previously overlooked role of Catholic thinkers. Joseph Schumpeter, one of the great economists of the twentieth century, paid tribute to the overlooked contributions of the late Scholastics – mainly sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish theologians – in his magisterial History of Economic Analysis (1954). "[I]t is they," he wrote, "who come nearer than does any other group to having been the ‘founders’ of scientific economics." In devoting scholarly attention to this unfortunately neglected chapter in the history of economic thought, Schumpeter would be joined by other accomplished scholars over the course of the twentieth century, including Professors Raymond de Roover, Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, and Alejandro Chafuen.

The Church also played an indispensable role in another essential development in Western civilization: the creation of the university. The university was an utterly new phenomenon in European history. Nothing like it had existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The institution that we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations, and degrees, as well as the familiar distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, come to us directly from the medieval world. And it is no surprise that the Church should have done so much to foster the nascent university system, since the Church, according to historian Lowrie Daly, "was the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge."

The popes and other churchmen ranked the universities among the great jewels of Christian civilization. It was typical to hear the University of Paris described as the "new Athens" – a designation that calls to mind the ambitions of the great Alcuin from the Carolingian period of several centuries earlier, who sought through his own educational efforts to establish a new Athens in the kingdom of the Franks. Pope Innocent IV (1243–54) described the universities as "rivers of science which water and make fertile the soil of the universal Church," and Pope Alexander IV (1254–61) called them "lanterns shining in the house of God." And the popes deserved no small share of the credit for the growth and success of the university system. "Thanks to the repeated intervention of the papacy," writes historian Henri Daniel-Rops, "higher education was enabled to extend its boundaries; the Church, in fact, was the matrix that produced the university, the nest whence it took flight."

As a matter of fact, among the most important medieval contributions to modern science was the essentially free inquiry of the university system, where scholars could debate and discuss propositions, and in which the utility of human reason was taken for granted. Contrary to the grossly inaccurate picture of the Middle Ages that passes for common knowledge today, medieval intellectual life made indispensable contributions to Western civilization. In The Beginnings of Western Science (1992), David Lindberg writes:

[I]t must be emphatically stated that within this educational system the medieval master had a great deal of freedom. The stereotype of the Middle Ages pictures the professor as spineless and subservient, a slavish follower of Aristotle and the Church fathers (exactly how one could be a slavish follower of both, the stereotype does not explain), fearful of departing one iota from the demands of authority. There were broad theological limits, of course, but within those limits the medieval master had remarkable freedom of thought and expression; there was almost no doctrine, philosophical or theological, that was not submitted to minute scrutiny and criticism by scholars in the medieval university.

"[S]cholars of the later Middle Ages," concludes Lindberg, "created a broad intellectual tradition, in the absence of which subsequent progress in natural philosophy would have been inconceivable."

Historian of science Edward Grant concurs with this judgment:

What made it possible for Western civilization to develop science and the social sciences in a way that no other civilization had ever done before? The answer, I am convinced, lies in a pervasive and deep-seated spirit of inquiry that was a natural consequence of the emphasis on reason that began in the Middle Ages. With the exception of revealed truths, reason was enthroned in medieval universities as the ultimate arbiter for most intellectual arguments and controversies. It was quite natural for scholars immersed in a university environment to employ reason to probe into subject areas that had not been explored before, as well as to discuss possibilities that had not previously been seriously entertained.

The creation of the university, the commitment to reason and rational argument, and the overall spirit of inquiry that characterized medieval intellectual life amounted to "a gift from the Latin Middle Ages to the modern world…though it is a gift that may never be acknowledged. Perhaps it will always retain the status it has had for the past four centuries as the best-kept secret of Western civilization."

Here, then, are just a few of the topics to be found in How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. I’ve been asked quite a few times in recent weeks what my next project will be. For now, it’ll be getting some rest.

"If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself." - Saint Augustine

"If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself."

- Saint Augustine

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. John Henry Newman

A great memory does not make a mind, any more than a dictionary is a piece of literature.
John Henry Newman

A great memory is never made synonymous with wisdom, any more than a dictionary would be called a treatise.
John Henry Newman

A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.
John Henry Newman

Ability is sexless.
John Henry Newman

Calculation never made a hero.
John Henry Newman

Evil has no substance of its own, but is only the defect, excess, perversion, or corruption of that which has substance.
John Henry Newman

Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather that it shall ever have a beginning.
John Henry Newman

From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery.
John Henry Newman

Growth is the only evidence of life.
John Henry Newman

If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards.
John Henry Newman

If we insist on being as sure as is conceivable... we must be content to creep along the ground, and never soar.
John Henry Newman

In this world no one rules by love; if you are but amiable, you are no hero; to be powerful, you must be strong, and to have dominion you must have a genius for organizing.
John Henry Newman

It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain.
John Henry Newman

It is almost the definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain.
John Henry Newman

It is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.
John Henry Newman

It is often said that second thoughts are best. So they are in matters of judgment but not in matters of conscience.
John Henry Newman

It is very difficult to get up resentment towards persons whom one has never seen.
John Henry Newman

Let us act on what we have, since we have not what we wish.
John Henry Newman

Let us take things as we find them: let us not attempt to distort them into what they are not... We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them.
John Henry Newman

Men will die upon dogma but will not fall victim to a conclusion.
John Henry Newman

Nothing is more common than for men to think that because they are familiar with words they understand the ideas they stand for.
John Henry Newman

Nothing would be done at all if one waited until one could do it so well that no one could find fault with it.
John Henry Newman

Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.
John Henry Newman

The love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men.
John Henry Newman

There is such a thing as legitimate warfare: war has its laws; there are things which may fairly be done, and things which may not be done.
John Henry Newman

To holy people the very name of Jesus is a name to feed upon, a name to transport. His name can raise the dead and transfigure and beautify the living.
John Henry Newman

To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.
John Henry Newman

Virtue is its own reward, and brings with it the truest and highest pleasure; but if we cultivate it only for pleasure's sake, we are selfish, not religious, and will never gain the pleasure, because we can never have the virtue.
John Henry Newman

We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe.
John Henry Newman

The Idea of a University (1873)

* There is a knowledge which is desirable, though nothing come of it, as being of itself a treasure, and a sufficient remuneration of years of labor.
o Discourse V, pt. 6

* Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another.
o Discourse V, pt. 9

* The world is content with setting right the surface of things.
o Discourse VIII, pt. 8

* A great memory does not make a philosopher, any more than a dictionary can be called grammar.
o Discourse VIII, pt. 10

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1878)

* To be deep in history is to cease to be protestant.
o Introduction, Part 5

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Agnostic vs. Atheist

What is the difference between agnostic and atheist?

The Latin roots of these words provide some light.

Agnostic comes from a- which means no, and gnosis which means knowledge. An agnostic just says that he does not know whether God exists or not.

Atheist also comes from a- meaning no, and theos which means God. An atheist then says that there is no God.

The Catholic Catechism, the product of four centuries of theological study, further explains what I just said.


Agnosticism assumes a number of forms.

In certain cases the agnostic refrains from denying God; instead he postulates the existence of a transcendent being which is incapable of revealing itself, and about which nothing can be said.

In other cases, the agnostic makes no judgment about God's existence, declaring it impossible to prove, or even to affirm or deny.

Agnosticism can sometimes include a certain search for God, but it can equally express indifferentism, a flight from the ultimate question of existence, and a sluggish moral conscience.

Agnosticism is all too often equivalent to practical atheism.


The name "atheism" covers many very different phenomena.

One common form is the practical materialism which restricts its needs and aspirations to space and time.

Atheistic humanism falsely considers man to be "an end to himself, and the sole maker, with supreme control, of his own history."

Another form of contemporary atheism looks for the liberation of man through economic and social liberation. "It holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts such emancipation by raising man's hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth."

Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion. The imputability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances.

"Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion."

Atheism is often based on a false conception of human autonomy, exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence on God.

Yet, "to acknowledge God is in no way to oppose the dignity of man, since such dignity is grounded and brought to perfection in God. . . . "

"For the Church knows full well that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Married Love and Contraception

Married Love and Contraception (Osservatore Romano (English Ed.), Oct. 10, 1988)
By Fr. Cormac Burke

There is a modern argument for conjugal contraception which claims to speak in personalist terms, and which could be summarised as follows. The marriage act has two functions: a biological or procreative function, and a spiritual-unitive function. However, while it is only potentially a procreative act, it is actually and in itself a love act: it truly expresses conjugal love and unites husband and wife. Now, while contraception frustrates the biological or procreative potential of the marital act, it fully respects its spiritual and unitive function; in fact it facilitates it by removing tensions or fears capable of impairing the expression of love in married intercourse. In other words - this position claims - while contraception suspends or nullifies the procreative aspect of marital intercourse, it leaves its unitive aspect intact.

Until quite recently, the argument presented by christian moralists against artificial birth-control has mainly been that the sexual act is naturally designed for procreation, and it is wrong to frustrate this design because it is wrong to interfere with man's natural functions. Many persons are not altogether convinced by this argument, which does seem open to rather elementary objections. After all, we do interfere with other natural functions, for instance when we use ear-plugs or hold our nose, etc., and no one has ever argued that to do so is morally wrong. Why then should it be wrong to interfere for good reasons with the procreational aspect of marital intercourse? The defenders of contraception in any case, dismiss this traditional argument as mere "biologism"; as an understanding of the marital act that fails to go beyond its biological function or possible biological consequences, and ignores its spiritual function, i.e. its function in signifying and effecting the union of the spouses.

Those who advance this defence of marital contraception - couched in apparently personalist terms - feel they are on strong and positive ground. If we are to offer an effective answer and show the radical defectiveness of this position, I suggest that we too need to develop a personalist argument, based on a true human understanding of sex and marriage.

The contraceptive argument outlined is evidently built on an essential thesis: that the procreative and the unitive aspects of the marital act are separable, i.e. that the procreative aspect can be nullified without this in any way vitiating the conjugal act or making it less a unique expression of true marital love and union.

This thesis is of course explicitly rejected by the Church. The main reason why contraception is unacceptable to a christian conscience is, as Pope Paul VI put it in Humanae Vitae, the "inseparable connection, established by God... between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act" (HV 12).

Paul VI affirmed this inseparable connection. He did not however go on to explain why these two aspects of the marital act are in fact so inseparably connected, or why this connection is such that it is the very ground of the moral evaluation of the act. Perhaps serene reflection, matured by the ongoing debate of more than 20 years, can enable us to discover the reasons why this is so: why the connection between the two aspects of the act is in fact such that the destruction of its procreative reference necessarily destroys its unitive and personalist significance. In other words, if one deliberately destroys the power of the conjugal act to give life, one necessarily destroys its power to signify love: the love and union proper to marriage.

The marital act as an act of union

Why is the act of intercourse called the conjugal act? Why is it regarded as the most distinctive expression of marital love and self-giving? Why is this act - which is but a passing and fleeting thing - particularly regarded as an act of union? After all, people in love express their love and desire to be united in many ways: sending letters, exchanging looks or presents, holding hands... What makes the sexual act unique? Why does this act unite the spouses in a way that no other act does? What is it that makes it not just a physical experience but a love experience?

Is it the special pleasure attaching to it? Is the unitive meaning of the conjugal act contained just in the sensation, however intense, that it can produce? If intercourse unites two people simply because it gives special pleasure, then it would seem that one or other of the spouses could at times find a more meaningful union outside marriage than within it. It would follow too that sex without pleasure becomes meaningless, and that sex with pleasure, even homosexual sex, becomes meaningful.

No. The conjugal act may or may not be accompanied by pleasure; but the meaning of the act does not consist in its pleasure. The pleasure provided by marital intercourse may be intense, but it is transient. The significance of marital intercourse is also intense, and it is not transient; it lasts.

Why should the marital act be more significant than any other expression of affection between the spouses? Why should it be a more intense expression of love and union? Surely because of what happens in that marital encounter, which is not just a touch, not a mere sensation, however intense, but a communication, an offer and acceptance, an exchange of something that uniquely represents the gift of oneself and the union of two selves.

Here, of course, it should not be forgotten that while two persons in love want to give themselves to one another, to be united to one another, this desire of theirs remains humanly speaking on a purely volitional level. They can bind themselves to one another, but they cannot actually give themselves. The greatest expression of a person's desire to give himself is to give the seed of himself [1]. Giving one's seed is much more significant, and in particular is much more real, than giving one's heart. "I am yours, I give you my heart; here, take it", remains mere poetry, to which no physical gesture can give true body. But, "I am yours; I give you my seed; here, take it", is not poetry, it is love. It is conjugal love embodied in a unique and privileged physical action whereby intimacy is expressed - "I give you what I give no one" - and union is achieved: "Take what I have to give. This will be a new me. United to you, to what you have to give - to your seed - this will be a new "you-and-me", fruit of our mutual knowledge and love". In human terms, this is the closest one can come to giving one's self conjugally and to accepting the conjugal self-gift of another, and so achieving spousal union.

Therefore, what makes marital intercourse express a unique relationship and union is not the sharing of a sensation but the sharing of a power: of an extraordinary life-related, creative physical sexual power. In a true conjugal relationship, each spouse says to the other: "I accept you as somebody like no one else in my life. You will be unique to me and I to you. You and you alone will be my husband; you alone will be my wife. And the proof of your uniqueness to me is the fact that with you - and with you alone - am I prepared to share this God-given life-oriented power".

In this consists the singular quality of intercourse. Other physical expressions of affection do not go beyond the level of a mere gesture; they remain a symbol of the union desired. But the conjugal act is not a mere symbol. In true marital intercourse, something real has been exchanged, with a full gift and acceptance of conjugal masculinity and femininity. And there remains, as witness to their conjugal relationship and the intimacy of their conjugal union, the husband's seed in the wife's body [2].

Now if one deliberately nullifies the life-orientation of the conjugal act, one destroys its essential power to signify union. Contraception in fact turns the marital act into self-deception or into a lie: "I love you so much that with you, and with you alone, I am ready to share this most unique power..." But - what unique power? In contraceptive sex, no unique power is being shared, except a power to produce pleasure. But then the uniqueness of the marital act is reduced to pleasure. Its significance is gone.

Contraceptive intercourse is an exercise in meaninglessness. It could perhaps be compared to going through the actions of singing without letting any sound of music pass one's lips.

Some of us can remember the love-duets of Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy, two popular singing stars of the early "talkies". How absurd if they had sung silent duets: going through the motions of singing, but not allowing their vocal chords to produce an intelligible sound: just meaningless reverberations...; a hurry or a flurry of movement signifying nothing. Contraceptive intercourse is very much like that. Contraceptive spouses involve each other in bodily movements, but their "body language" is not truly human (The "language of the body" is of course a key expression in Pope John Paul II's writings on sexuality and marriage). They refuse to let their bodies communicate sexually and intelligibly with one another. They go through the motions of a love-song; but there is no song.

Contraception is in fact not just an action without meaning; it is an action that contradicts the essential meaning which true conjugal intercourse should have as signifying total and unconditional self-donation ("Contraception contradicts the truth of conjugal love", Pope John Paul II, Address, September 17, 1983). Instead of accepting each other totally, contraceptive spouses reject of each other in part, because fertility is part of each of them. They reject part of their mutual love: its power to be fruitful...

A couple may say: we do not want our love to be fruitful. But if that is so, there is an inherent contradiction in their trying to express their love by means of an act which, of its nature, implies fruitful love; and there is even more of a contradiction if, when they engage in the act, they deliberately destroy the fertility-orientation from which precisely derives its capacity to express the uniqueness of their love.

In true marital union, husband and wife are meant to experience the vibration of human vitality in its very source [3]. In the case of contraceptive "union", the spouses experience sensation, but it is drained of real vitality.

The anti-life effect of contraception does not stop at the "No" which it addresses to the possible fruit of love. It tends to take the very life out of love itself. Within the hard logic of contraception, anti-life becomes anti-love. Its devitalising effect devastates love, threatening it with early ageing and premature death.

At this point it is good to anticipate the possible criticism that our argument so far is based on an incomplete disjunction, inasmuch as it seems to affirm that the conjugal act is either procreative or else merely hedonistic... Can contraceptive spouses not counter this with the sincere affirmation that, in their intercourse, they are not merely seeking pleasure; they are also experiencing and expressing love for one another?

Let us clarify our position on this particular point. We are not affirming that contraceptive spouses may not love each other in their intercourse, nor - insofar as they are not prepared to have such intercourse with a third person - that it does not express a certain uniqueness in their relationship. Our thesis is that it does not express conjugal uniqueness. Love may somehow be present in their contraceptive relationship; conjugal love is not expressed by it. Conjugal love may in fact soon find itself threatened by it. Contraceptive spouses are constantly haunted by the suspicion that the act in which they share could indeed be, for each one of them, a privileged giving of pleasure, but could also be a mere selfish taking of pleasure. It is logical that their love-making be troubled by a sense of falseness or hollowness, for they are attempting to found the uniqueness of the spousal relationship on an act of pleasure that tends ultimately to close each one of them sterilely in on himself or herself, and they are refusing to found that relationship on the truly unique conjugal dimension of loving co-creativity capable, in its vitality, of opening each of them out not merely to one another but to the whole of life and creation.

Sexual love and sexual knowledge

The mutual and exclusive self-donation of the marriage act consists in its being the gift and acceptance of something unique. Now this something unique is not just the seed (this indeed could be "biologism"), but the fullness of the sexuality of each spouse.

It was in the context of its not being good for man to be alone that God made him sexual. He created man in a duality - male and female - with the potential to become a trinity. The differences between the sexes speak therefore of a divine plan of complementarity, of self-completion and self-fulfilment, also through self-perpetuation.

It is not good for man to be alone because man, on his own, cannot fulfil himself; he needs others. He especially needs another: a companion, a spouse. Union with a spouse, giving oneself to a spouse - sexual and marital union in self-donation - are normally a condition of human growth and fulfilment.

Marriage, then, is a means of fulfilment through union. Husband and wife are united in mutual knowledge and love, a love which is not just spiritual but also bodily; and a knowledge supporting their love which is likewise not mere speculative or intellectual knowledge; it is bodily knowledge as well. Their marital love is also meant to be based on carnal knowledge; this is fully human and fully logical. How significant it is that the Bible, in the original hebrew, refers to marital intercourse in terms of man and woman "knowing" each other. Adam, Genesis says, knew Eve, his wife. What comment can we make on this equivalence which the Bible draws between conjugal intercourse and mutual knowledge?

What is the distinctive knowledge that husband and wife communicate to one another? It is the knowledge of each other's integral human condition as spouse. Each "discloses" a most intimate secret to the other: the secret of his or her personal sexuality. Each is revealed to the other truly as spouse and comes to know the other in the uniqueness of that spousal self-revelation and self-gift. Each one lets himself or herself be known by the other, and surrenders to the other, precisely as husband or wife.

Nothing can undermine a marriage so much as the refusal to fully know and accept one's spouse or to let oneself be fully known by him or her. Marriage is constantly endangered by the possibility of one spouse holding something back from the other; keeping some knowledge to oneself that he or she does not want the other to possess [4]. This can occur on all levels of interpersonal communication: physical as well as spiritual.

In many modern marriages, there is something in the spouses, and between the spouses, that each does not want to know, does not want to face up to, wants to avoid: and this something is their sexuality. As a result, since they will not allow each other full mutual carnal knowledge, they do not truly know each other sexually or humanly or spousally. This places their married love under a tremendous existential tension that can tear it apart.

In true marital intercourse each spouse renounces protective self-possession, so as to fully possess and be fully possessed by the other. This fullness of true sexual gift and possession is only achieved in marital intercourse open to life. Only in procreative intercourse do the spouses exchange true "knowledge" of one another, do they truly speak humanly and intelligibly to one another; do they truly reveal themselves to one another in their full human actuality and potential. Each offers, and each accepts, full spousal knowledge of the other.

In the body language of intercourse, each spouse utters a word of love that is both a "self-expression" - an image of each one's self - as well as an expression of his or her longing for the other. These two words of love meet, and are fused in one. And, as this new unified word of love takes on flesh, God shapes it into a person - the child: the incarnation of the husband's and wife's sexual knowledge of one another and sexual love for one another.

In contraception, the spouses will not let the word - which their sexuality longs to utter - take flesh. They will not even truly speak the word to each other. They remain humanly impotent in the face of love; sexually dumb and carnally speechless before one another.

Sexual love is a love of the whole male or female person, body and spirit. Love is falsified if body and spirit do not say the same thing. This happens in contraception. The bodily act speaks of a presence of love or of a degree of love that is denied by the spirit. The body says, "I love you totally", whereas the spirit says, "I love you reservedly". The body says, "I seek you"; the spirit says, "I will not accept you, not all of you".

Contraceptive intercourse falls below mere pantomime. It is disfigured body-language; it expresses a rejection of the other. By it, each says: "I do not want to know you as my husband or my wife; I am not prepared to recognise you as my spouse. I want something from you, but not your sexuality; and if I have something to give to you, something I will let you take, it is not my sexuality" [5].

This enables us to develop a point we touched on earlier. The negation that a contraceptive couple are involved in is not directed just towards children, or just towards life, or just towards the world. They address a negation directly towards one another. "I prefer a sterile you", is equivalent to saying, "I don't want all you offer me. I have calculated the measure of my love, and it is not big enough for that; it is not able to take all of you. I want a "you" cut down to the size of my love..." The fact that both spouses may concur in accepting a cut-rate version of each other does not save their love or their lives - or their possibilities of happiness - from the effects of such radical human and sexual devaluation.

Normal conjugal intercourse fully asserts masculinity and femininity. The man asserts himself as man and husband, and the woman equally asserts herself as woman and wife. In contraceptive intercourse, only a maimed sexuality is asserted. In the truest sense sexuality is not asserted at all. Contraception represents such a refusal to let oneself be known that it simply is not real carnal knowledge. A deep human truth underlies the theological and juridic principle that contraceptive sex does not consummate marriage.

Contraceptive intercourse, then, is not real sexual intercourse at all. That is why the disjunctives offered by this whole matter are insufficiently expressed by saying that if intercourse is contraceptive, then it is merely hedonistic. This may or may not be true. What is true - at a much deeper level - is that if intercourse is contraceptive, then it is not sexual. In contraception there is an "intercourse" of sensation, but no real sexual knowledge or sexual love, no true sexual revelation of self or sexual communication of self or sexual gift of self. The choice of contraception is in fact the rejection of sexuality. The warping of the sexual instinct from which modern society seems to suffer represents not so much an excess of sex, as a lack of true human sexuality.

True conjugal intercourse unites. Contraception separates, and the separation works right along the line. It not only separates sex from procreation, it also separates sex from love. It separates pleasure from meaning, and body from mind. Ultimately and surely, it separates wife from husband and husband from wife.

Contraceptive couples who stop to reflect realize that their marriage is troubled by some deep malaise. The alienations they are experiencing are a sign as well as a consequence of the grave violation of the moral order involved in contraception. Only a resolute effort to break with contraceptive practices can heal the sickness affecting their married life. This is why the teaching of Humanae Vitae as well as subsequent papal magisterium on the matter, far from being a blind adherence to an outdated posture, represent a totally clear-sighted defence of the innate dignity and true meaning of human and spousal sexuality.

Why does only procreative sex fulfil?

Our argument so far is that contraceptive marital sex does not achieve any true personalist end. It does not bring about self-fulfilment in marriage, but rather prevents and frustrates it. But - one may still ask - does it follow that open-to-life marital sex alone leads to the self-fulfilment of the spouses? I think it does; and the reason lies in the very nature of love (cf. Covenanted Happiness, pp. 38-47). Love is creative. God's love (if we may put it this way) "drove" Him to create. Man's love, made in the image of God's, is also meant to create. If it deliberately does not do so, it frustrates itself. Love between two persons makes them want to do things together. While this is true of friendship in general, it has a singular application to the love between spouses. A couple truly in love want to do things together; if possible, they want to do something "original" together. Nothing is more original to a couple in love than their child: the image and fruit of their love and their union. That is why "the marital thing" is to have children; and other things, as substitutes, do not satisfy conjugal love.

Procreative intercourse fulfils also because only in such intercourse are the spouses open to all the possibilities of their mutual love: ready to be enriched and fulfilled not only by what it offers to them, but also by what it demands of them.

Further, procreative intercourse fulfils because it expresses the human person's desire for self-perpetuation. It expresses it and does not contradict it, as contraception does. It is only on life-wishes, not on death-wishes, that love can thrive. When a normal married couple have a child, they pass their child joyfully to each other. If their child dies, there is no joy, there are tears, as they pass its dead body to one another. Spouses should weep over a contraceptive act: a barren, desolate act which rejects the life that is meant to keep love alive, and would kill the life their love naturally seeks to give origin to. There may be physical satisfaction, but there can be no joy in passing dead seed; or in passing living seed only to kill it.

The vitality of sensation in sexual intercourse should correspond to a vitality of meaning (remembering - as we have said - that sensation is not meaning). The very explosiveness of sexual pleasure suggests the greatness of the creativity of sex. In each conjugal act, there should be something of the magnificence - of the scope and power - of Michelangelo's Creation in the Sistine Chapel in Rome... But it is the dynamism not just of a sensation, but of an event: of something that happens, of a communication of life.

A lack of true sexual awareness characterizes the act if the intensity of pleasure does not serve to stir a fully conscious understanding of the greatness of the conjugal experience: I am committing myself - my creative life-giving power - not just to another person, but to the whole of creation: to history, to mankind, to the purposes and design of God. In each act of conjugal union, teaches Pope John Paul II, "there is renewed, in a way, the mystery of creation in all its original depth and vital power" (General Audience, November 21, 1979: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, II, 2 (1979), p. 1215).

A last point should be made. The whole question we are considering is of course tremendously complicated precisely by the strength of the sexual instinct. Nevertheless, the very strength of this instinct should itself be a pointer towards an adequate understanding of sexuality. Elementary commonsense says that the power of the sexual urge must correspond to deep human aspirations or needs. It has of course been traditional to explain the sexual urge in cosmic or demographic terms: just as we have a food appetite to maintain the life of the individual, so we have a sex appetite to maintain the life of the species. This explanation makes sense - as far as it goes. However, it clearly does not go far enough. The sex appetite - the strength of the sex appetite - surely corresponds not only to cosmic or collectivist needs, but also to personalist needs. If man and woman feel a deep longing for sexual union, it is also because they have - each one personally has - a deep longing for all that is involved in true sexuality: self-giving, self-complementarity, self-realization, self-perpetuation, in spousal union with another.

The experience of such complete spousal sexuality is filled with many-facetted pleasure, in which the simple physical satisfaction of a mere sense instinct is accompanied and enriched by the personalist satisfaction of the much deeper and stronger longings involved in sex, and not marred and soured by their frustration. If continuous and growing sexual frustration is a main consequence of contraception, this is also because the contraceptive mentality deprives the very strength of the sexual urge of its real meaning and purpose, and then tries to find full sexual experience and satisfaction in what is basically little more than a physical release.


[1] Seed is here intended to refer equally to the male or the female generative element.

[2] In this way in fact the uniqueness of the decision to marry a particular person is reaffirmed in each marital act. By every single act of true intercourse, each spouse is confirmed in the unique status of being husband or wife to the other.

[3] This still remains true even in cases where, for some reason or another, the spouses cannot have children. Their union in such cases, just as their union during the wife's pregnancy, draws its deepest meaning from the fact that both their conjugal act and the intention behind it are "open to life", even though no life can actually result from the act. It is their basic openness to life which gives the act its meaning and dignity. Just as the absence of this openness is what undermines the dignity and meaning of the act when the spouses, without serious reasons, deliberately limit their marital intercourse to the infertile periods.

[4] Obviously we are not referring here to those occasions in which, out of justice to a third party, one of the spouses is under an obligation to observe some secret, e.g. of a professional nature. Fulfilment of such an obligation is in no way a violation of the rights of married intimacy.

[5] If it is not sexuality that each spouse in contraceptive intercourse gives to or takes from the other, what does each one in fact actually take or give? In what might be termed the better cases, it is a form of love - divorced from sexuality. In other cases, it is merely pleasure, also - be it noted - divorced from sexuality. In one case or the other, contraceptive spouses always deny themselves sexuality. Their marriage, deprived of a true sexual relationship, suffers in consequence.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Opus Dei and Christian materialism

By Raul Nidoy at Wikipedia. One of my contributions at Wikipedia, where I built on an existing article. Tomorrow, October 2, is the eighty-first anniversary of the foundation of Opus Dei.

Throughout history, Christian thought has struggled with the ideas of flesh, world, and spirit, and their interplay in each person's salvation. As Cardinal Ratzinger said in What It Means To Be a Christian (2006), “Christian theology... in the course of time turned the kingdom of God into a kingdom of heaven that is beyond this mortal life; the well-being of men became a salvation of souls, which again comes to pass beyond this life, after death."

This tendency of spiritualization, Ratzinger said, is not the message of Jesus Christ. "For what is sublime in this message," he stated, "is precisely that the Lord was talking not just about another life, not just about men’s souls, but was addressing the body, the whole man, in his embodied form, with his involvement in history and society; that he promised the kingdom of God to the man who lives bodily with other men in this history."

The most visible use of the term Christian materialism is found in the writings of Josemaría Escrivá, a Spanish Roman Catholic saint of the twentieth century, who said that all temporal realities have a sanctifying power and Christians can find God in the most ordinary material things. As such, it is associated with the Roman Catholic prelature of Opus Dei which Escriva founded. It is an organization which teaches that everyone is called to holiness and that ordinary life, even the most material activity, is a path to sanctity.

Escriva criticized those who "have tried to present the Christian way of life as something exclusively spiritual, proper to pure, extraordinary people, who remain aloof from the contemptible things of this world, or at most tolerate them as something necessarily attached to the spirit, while we live on this earth. When things are seen in this way, churches become the setting par excellence of the Christian life. And being a Christian means going to church, taking part in sacred ceremonies, being taken up with ecclesiastical matters, in a kind of segregated world, which is considered to be the ante-chamber of heaven, while the ordinary world follows its own separate path."

Instead, he affirmed the "high value of the material." According to him, "Authentic Christianity which professes the resurrection of all flesh, has always quite logically opposed 'dis-incarnation,' without fear of being judged materialistic. We can, therefore, rightfully speak of a Christian materialism, which is boldly opposed to those materialisms which are blind to the spirit."

In an address to a theological symposium, Holiness and the World, which studied the teachings of Josemaria Escriva, John Paul II referred to one of his homilies:

There is nothing that is outside of the concern of Christ. Speaking with theological rigor ... one cannot say that there are things — good, noble or even indifferent — which are exclusively profane; for the Word of God has made his dwelling the sons of men, he was hungry and thirsty, worked with his hands, knew friendship and obedience, experience sorrow and death. (Conversations 112)

In connection with this quote, John Paul II said that the Catholic Church today is "conscious of serving a redemption that concerns every aspect of human existence," an awareness which was "prepared by a gradual intellectual and spiritual development." He also said that the message of Escriva, which has contributed in this direction, stems "from a unique grasp of the radiant, universal force of the Redeemer's grace." He later called Escriva "one of Christianity's great witnesses."