Sexual Morality: A Personal Imperative

Edouard Cardinal Gagnon
Reproduced with Permission

I think our ideas and convictions on sexual morality are very important in this period of the history not only of the Church but of humanity. We live in a period of great confusion. Once I met one of my friends in Washington who had just been at the airport, sending his son off to France to be present at that celebration of the Revolution. I know that many here in America have a very high idea of French Revolution; I know this is because many French soldiers came here before or after the French Revolution and helped America obtain its independence. The French Revolution had as one of its characteristics an insistence on the rights of man. It did not mention the duty of man. Democracy has that kind of cancer which is the fact that everybody claims his own right without thinking much about his duty. Politics has become so impersonal; people have so much to say in general on the selection of the candidates that there is little recognition in party meetings that most of us have lost our sense of responsibility or duty toward society and toward the whole world. We think more about "rights." We have arrived at the point where not only do we forget the rights of our neighbor or try to find what will fulfill us materially, or even in certain ways spiritually, we often forget our duty toward others on earth.

Most of all we have arrived at the moment where we ignore our duties towards God, Our Creator, the one who gives us life in a very personal and individual way and who maintains us in life every day. We have forgotten that we have duties towards Him. There have been many discussions on abortion and on contraception and sterilization. People talk of freedom of conscience and their rights and their right to choose abortion, [but] they are contradicting the rights of the human being that is unborn. When you come to contraception, so many declarations have been made that it is something to be left to the 'conscience' of people. They have to decide according to their situation, their means, and their social condition; but you very seldom hear that we have to take a decision that will respect the rights of God, God our Creator, the God who has a right to give us laws.

I have spent 20 years since Humanae Vitae trying to explain and defend the teachings of the Holy Father on conjugal morality. By looking deeper into it, I have come to see that most of the opposition to Humanae Vitae comes from the fact that people will not accept the Pope's teaching just because the Pope is the representative of Christ. They do not accept Christ's teaching. They do not accept Christ as a Person who is alive and takes an interest in us, that He is the God who loves us and cares about us, and that He is a God who is a Legislator, who has a right to ask us, to tell us what to do, to give us orders and commands because He is the one who knows what is best for His own glory, and for the glory of the Father and for the good of all mankind and for our own happiness.

"Why Can't Jesus Ask That?"

People say you talk about morality to young people, and because they have difficulties and they have not found the guidance they needed, you proceed to tell us what their duty is, about love for their own personal being, for their own bodies, and about respect for the virtue of chastity in their lives then such people say, "Jesus cannot ask that."

I ask them, "Why can't Jesus ask that?" They reply, Jesus just told us "to love." That is all He told us. Then they add, Jesus has created us free and you should let us be free and to act as free beings. At the bottom of all this confusion about morality, this confused talk about personal conscience, there is the absence of the knowledge of God, and of Christ, of the acceptance that God is the Savior who came to save us. His way of saving us was to establish the Church with the sacraments to give us supernatural life and grace. The way He saves us is by His teachings and the commands of His Father which He has explained and confirmed in His Life.

Many people pretend to know Jesus, but for them Jesus is like Superman or Batman. Something they do not see is that He is real, that He has lived on earth, and that He is still living in Heaven showing His Body with the wounds of His Heart, His hands and His feet, and telling the Father "I died for them." They forget that Jesus is alive and is still the Legislator, the one who has the right to tell us what to do and who has the right to tell it to us through the Magisterium of the Church He has established, when He said, "If they do not obey you, they disobey Me; when they listen to you, they listen to Me." The basis of all this is not lack of knowledge of Christ but lack of acceptance of Him as the real Master of our lives.

When I was Bishop in Alberta 20 years ago, for the first time in the history of the Diocese of St. Paul, there were four seminarians who were ready to go to the seminary. I had been a teacher of moral theology and was coming back from South America and Vatican Council II. I asked some questions; I wanted to find a school of theology where they would teach that fornication (sex out of marriage) is a sin. I could not really find one where they would say plainly that this is a sin, that is a sin.

The one who went furthest said, "Well, I cannot say it's right but if it's done through love, we should not judge." You have heard similar statements all the time, "Christ says I have not come to judge but to save" or "Our Lord says we must not judge." Well these words are taken out of context because Christ has indeed come to save us; but He has also come to judge. If you read the Gospel, not only the Gospels written by the four evangelists, but also the gospel we find in the Epistles of the other Apostles, we see Our Lord makes judgments all the time on what is good and what is wrong.

When we say we should not judge and condemn, it means we are not the ones who will punish someone for eternity because he does bad or wrong; but we have to judge in the sense we have to affirm the rights of God and we have to do it without fear. Let no one tell us not to judge! We have to say this is right, and this is wrong. It is a form of charity to tell the sinner he is wrong. This is repeated all along in the Scriptures in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. St. James tells us that if one sees his brother who is sinning and he tells him that he is wrong and converts him, his reward in Heaven is assured. So you cannot do that unless you tell someone what is wrong or what is good. The main reason we do not have a well-informed conscience on what is right and what is wrong is often we do not look at God our Creator as a Legislator. We do not look on Christ as one who cares about our own personal life. As some have said of the teaching of the Church, "Well the Church should not enter into the bedroom of the married couple." They say the same about Christ. They do not let Him enter there. This is the basis for the rejection of Christ's teaching on sexual morality.

After I was Bishop and I had the experience of knowing what was taught in most schools of theology, I wanted to know the cause. I used to go to various towns for confirmation in Eastern Canada. Various seminarians accompanied me so I asked those seminarians, "Do you have in your training what was called 'apologetics' in other times, to show you that Christ really existed, that He really proved that He was the Son of God and that He is still living in Heaven?" They said, "Well, we don't have a course on the spiritual reality of Christ." They said, "We will ask our teacher of Christology." (They have bigger words than when we were in the seminary but they are often empty.) They came the next day and told me, "We asked our teacher and he told us that the fact that Christ has lived, really existed or not, is not the important thing; what is important is what Christ means to us today." I think there is a lot of that at the basis of the crisis in morality.

The Identity of the Antichrist

You know what St. Paul said, "If Christ has not died and Risen from the dead, we Christians are the craziest of all men." How can Christ mean something to me today, if He has not existed? If it is true that He has existed and, that He was the Son of God come to earth, we have to accept that. St. John, in his [first] Epistle, says that the antichrist is the one who denies that the Son of God has come and lived in the flesh. This antichrist is at work today.

You see people today looking for the Antichrist all over, but St. John tells us who the antichrist is. It is the individual or the societies and cultures which do not accept the fact that the Son of God has come and lived among us in the flesh to be our brother.

If we accept this truth, then we can accept that He has established the Church and He has given the Church authority, and we then can accept His laws on marriage and on personal chastity. If you do not accept that, you make your own laws because you forget that Christ is always there living in the presence of His Father but always looking at us. (Because if He ascended into Heaven with His Body, if He wanted His Mother to ascend into Heaven in the Assumption, also with Her body, there always both of them in the presence of God - it is because they have done that for us, wanting to be there in the presence of the Father to represent us). So they care about us and there is not one instant in which they do not care about us. Their caring about us is like the care of parents who have the responsibility for the growth of their children. It means not saying "yes" to everything, but giving laws, giving norms for daily life.

The president at a study session on AIDS in Venezuela was Dr. Montague. He is a French scientist, the one who has discovered the AIDS virus. He explained there that the virus has existed for centuries but has now, for the first time, become universal and is spreading very fast. He is not a Catholic. I do not think he is even a Christian. Someone asked him, "How do you explain that?" He answered in two words; he said, "THE PILL, THE PILL." They asked, "How come?" "Well," he said, "the PILL has made sexual promiscuity easier and more general, and this is why we have AIDS."

That is a great confession on the part of someone who does not start from the point of view of our faith, but who looks seriously at reality. AIDS and other great evils of our times are due to the lack of morality, the non-acceptance of the laws of God. When men look for their own satisfaction, pleasure, and do not accept rules from outside, and, if at the same time false notions of freedom, or concessions made to individuals allow them to do something wrong without suffering the consequences themselves, or, if they are invited to do what they wish without looking at what consequences this can have for others - then you have the destruction of morality and the destruction of society.

The Declaration of Independence of the United States says that we are all brothers and free, but under God. The moment we are no longer under God, we are no longer free. We are exposed to the law of the stronger, the stronger physically or the stronger who deny the power of the law. Morality means before all our faith in God - faith in God who revealed Himself in the Person of His Son who is called the Word of the Father. This Word means the Son who not only comes to cure the sick and manifest His love and kindness by external acts, but the Son of God who always speaks the Word of Truth. Before dying He told His Apostles, "If you love Me you will keep My Word. If you keep My Word, My Father will love you and will come and give you the Spirit." The condition is to keep His Word, keep His commandments, because they are the commandments of His Father. We cannot say that we have to obey Him but not His representatives on earth, not the Holy Father. His Word teaches us that Christ has given to Peter and his successors until the end of the world the power to make disciples, to teach the Gospel, and to explain it. He gave to Peter and the Apostles the special infusion of the Spirit by the imposition of the hands, so this could be till the end of the world.

The Problem is Bigger Than Sexual Morality

When we talk about sexual morality, we have to recall the necessity of bringing back into our society morality as a whole. If so many people are losing their obedience to God (and because of that losing sanctifying grace and their friendship to God by acting against the natural law on sexual morality as explained and made actual by the Church), it is often because they have started disobeying God's will on other things before. They have not kept God as the center of their life.

We are called to Eternal Life. The particular problem we are dealing with involves the problem of sexual morality but a greater problem is the overall problem of morality. Pope John Paul II explained that very well in his exhortation on the duties and the mission of the Family in the modern world. He recalls how the consciences of the faithful are influenced by what is being taught, what is being said around them, and what ideologies are incarnated in the law of States and societies. He says living in the present world involves pressures coming above all from the mass media; the faithful do not always remain immune from the obscuring of certain fundamental values.

The Holy Father recalls some of the troubling signs of the present actuality. He stresses the following: "the spread of divorce and of recourse to a new union even on the part of the faithful, the acceptance of the purely civil marriage in contradiction to the vocation of the baptized to be married in the Lord, the celebration of the sacrament of marriage without living faith but for other motives, the rejection of the moral norms that guide and promote the human and Christian exercise of sexuality in marriage." I think this is very characteristic of the general situation and of the situation in which families find themselves.

In order to resist that pressure of the mass media in the culture in which we live daily, we have to react. To bring back the basics of Faith that are at the source of all our personal morality and the morality of society a good application of what the Holy Father asks in number 8 of the Familiaris Consortio when he says: "The whole church is obliged to a deep reflection and commitment so that the new culture now emerging be evangelized in depth through values acknowledged, and the rights and values of men and women defended, and justice promoted in the new structures of society. In this way Humanism will not distract people from their relationship with God but will lead them to it more fully." He says, "Science and technical applications offer immense possibilities but science is often used against its original purpose which is the advancement of the human person. It becomes necessary therefore on the part of all to recover an awareness of the primacy of moral values which are the values of the human person as such." The great task that has to be faced today for the renewal of society is that of recapturing the ultimate meaning of life and its fundamental values. Only an awareness of the primacy of those values enables man to use the immense possibilities given him by science in such a way as to bring about the true advancement of the human person in his freedom and dignity. The Holy Father in Familiaris Consortio quotes Vatican II, "Our era needs such wisdom more than bygone ages if the discoveries made by man are to be further humanized, for the future of the world stands in peril unless wiser people are forthcoming."

Surely when we are in a position like the one I have in Rome, most of the letters we receive are from people who are suffering from the present situation of the world and of the Church. The Holy Father, too, is in a place where he hears more about what is going wrong in the world. Every one of us when we have a problem that deeply affects us, we think that the Holy Father should take in it the same interest that we do. But he has not only thousands but hundred of thousands of similar problems, and there are so many places in the world. At least here you can talk, and you can resist, and you can say what you want, whereas the Holy Father is preoccupied with those places where the people can no longer say what they think and can no longer even receive the food of the Holy Eucharist or receive the teaching of the true pastors of the Church. They are under severe persecution.

Teach the Truth

It is the duty of all us to try and transform that world. Since I have been working in Rome, I have become more optimistic than when I was bishop of my diocese. I remember going to see the Holy Father a few months after I was made a bishop. (Every time I have gone to a new place in my life and try to begin to work with enthusiasm, God has sent me an accident or a good illness to put me in bed to reflect a month or two after my appointment; I have no part of my body without fractures). So I was discouraged at the time and I went to see the Holy Father and talk to him about all those problems and he told me, "Error makes its way because truth is not taught. We must teach the truth whenever we see something which is against the truth. We must teach the truth, repeat it, not attacking the ones who tell errors because that would never end, they are so numerous. We have to teach the truth." He told me truth has a grace attached to it. Anytime we tell the truth that is in conformity to what Christ teaches and what is being taught us by the Church, every time we say the truth there is an internal grace of God that accompanies the truth. The truth may not immediately enter in the mind and heart of those to whom we talk, but the grace of God is there and at the time they need it, God will open their heart and they will accept it. He said, error does not have grace accompanying it. It might have all the external means, but it does not have the grace of God accompanying it. This encouraged me very much.

I have been encouraged by the fact that even things that are as evil as the Roe vs. Wade decision have been used by God for good results. I think the American Catholic laity is more active, more committed now than it was before. That unfortunate decision has been a sign of a greater involvement of faithful Catholics of the United States in the life of society and the life of the Church. I think initiatives like this are also another sign of the fact that difficulties will stimulate in those that are really faithful a greater sense of their duty, their necessity to react, and to try to find ways to bring people back to Christ. I think this is the work that is done by associations or movements which are ready to go against the current, who are ready to be contradicted by the world, and are ready to contradict the world because they love the world as God's creation.

I have been fighting for Christian sexual morality. I have been tempted often to let all those who practice contraception or abortion go on like that, and so we will have as the only survivors those who are faithful to the law of God, and thus, we would have a more perfect Church! (All the sinners would go away). But that would not be Christian! We cannot say let them go to Hell, no we cannot say that. Because Christ came to save everybody and we are not Christians if we do not want conversions of persons, if we do not seek the conversions of mentalities, and if we do not want the conversion of our own country. The Holy Father said this, in effect, to the crowd on the Mall in Washington on his first visit. He answered the argument that Catholics should not try to impose their views on the rest of the population. He said, "Catholics should love their country enough not to want their country become the instrument for destroying life. No one who loves his country can accept that the law of the country be contrary to God's plan on life." We cannot remain silent on the pretext we respect the opinion of others. Rather we would be lacking love for our own country and for our own brothers on earth and in the nation where God has called us to live to give witness as Christians.

God's Law Expresses His Love for Us

What do we call morality, in general? Morality, in general, means conforming. "Mores," the Latin word, means the habits, the way of life, or comportment. Morality is conforming our conduct to what we are, and what we are is that we are creatures. Morality means following the directions of the One who has created us and who has written His law in our hearts, in our conscience. Knowing that so many things would make us unable to hear or unwilling to hear clearly the voice of our conscience, voice of the natural law, the will of our Creator is that we be aided and helped by the Magisterium of the Church He established. God had given the Commandments to His chosen people but they were not faithful, and He had to send His Son to make reparation for sins committed and also to teach us by His example, as well as by the example of His disciples and all the saints that have followed Him in observing the laws of His Father. This is morality, conforming our conduct to the will of God our Creator. We should be careful in presenting morality to stress that the laws of God are acts of love on the part of God. I can use an example.

We have now very elaborate, sophisticated toys for children which are used at times more by their parents because of their complexity. If you do not have the directions on how to use them, they will not last long. The maker has to tell you how to operate them. So the law of God is the same thing. It is an act of love by God to have given us a human nature and then to tell us how to use that human nature for our own good (because our own good will procure His glory). I do not think a manufacturer of elaborate toys would be happy if he learned that 90% of those who had used the toys, had broken them in the first week. No, he would expect them to last longer than that. So the same with God. Too often we forget that the laws of God are signs of His love for us.

Some years ago a certain group of theologians and people working in hospitals in Canada were reviewing the code of ethics for Catholic hospitals. There was a paragraph saying that abortion and sterilization are great sins against the will of God. Then it continued, but if the doctor judges that this is necessary for the good of the person, the nurses should go along with what the doctor says.

While this is the way of thinking of many people, it is false to think that the real good of the person can be contrary to the rules given by God. They pretend to know better than the Author of our nature, the God who has created us, because they think that disobeying Him could be for our own good! This is saying, in effect that by imposing this law God is not a loving Father but a tyrant imposing on us things contrary to our own good.

Accepting the moral laws of God is an act of faith in His love for us. We have, as much as we can, to try and prove by facts and by examples and most of all, by the example of our own lives, that God's law leads to happiness. God's laws are the only ones which respect what we are; because of His love He is ready to ask us for things that are difficult and are not accepted by everyone around us.

Sexual morality is an application of morality in general. This application of morality in general also governs the use of the facilities with which God has endowed men and women in order to insure the perpetuity of the human race. We can understand this by reading, as the Holy Father does often, the first chapters of Genesis. God has created man and woman and He has put an inclination for one towards the other; this inclination was His means to ensure that men and women in love unite to be His collaborators in the transmitting of life. God could have created us directly as adults with all the perfection of our mind and of our body, but He did not want that. He rather, wanted us to be born of the love of a man and a woman because He wanted us to learn through that what a loving father is, and to better understand Him who presents Himself in the Scripture as loving us with the kind of love a mother has for her children.

The institution of the family was the way of collaborating with God to transmit life, to pro-create, to prepare the body in which He would infuse a soul. The plan of God is to make us understand His own love. Conjugal morality means accepting the rules laid down by God for us to follow in the use of those faculties which the Church has always taught to be so noble and so great because of the mission given the family to prepare new citizens not only for this world but also for eternity. Where do we find the rules of morality? We find them in the Tradition of the Church. We also find them in different places of the New Testament. In more organized scheme of the presentation of the Church's teachings, the teachings on sexual morality have rightly been presented as an explanation of the 6th and 9th commandments.

It has also been presented from another aspect in the Church's teaching on the virtue of chastity. The virtue of chastity is a form of the cardinal virtue of temperance which regulates control of one's desires and appetites thus fostering self-control.

After his exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, in which he had recalled the traditional rules of the Church on morality, the Holy Father said at a meeting how important morality is for the future of our society. He declared that Familiaris Consortio gave the Church's essential orientation for the end of this 20th Century. The truth that the Church teaches is a truth of life and it must be lived. It concerns the personal life of the married couple and the culture in which we live. When we have to defend morality, it is not enough to try to help people live personally in conformity with God's will; it is also our duty to see to it, as much as we can, that our culture be faithful to the laws of God on sexual morality. When we talk of sexual morality, we usually refer to conjugal morality, to those acts and practices, which are licit and in conformity with the law of God in marriage. But sexual morality concerns also the law of God for those who are not married. There is conjugal morality, conjugal chastity, and there is personal chastity. The Church knows full well that many do not control their own desires and inclinations before marriage. If a person has not been taught the virtue of chastity beforehand, marriage will not be a remedy for wayward inclinations or the lack of control. Conjugal life would become an occasion for more failings in accepting and following God's will.

This is why the Church recalls that the Law of God as expressed in commandments given to Moses and in the tradition of the Old Testament and the New Testament is that the use of the faculties to transmit life outside of marriage is always a sin opposed to the will of God. The use of those same facilities in marriage involving a break in the essential orientation of sexual union towards procreation is also a grave sin. I hope you have all read and reflected on the encyclical Humanae Vitae which recalls the law of God on sexual morality. You have read and you have heard what John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio (and on what the Holy Father repeats all the time) on the "theology of the body." We have been created through love, through the love of God. God created us to love. He has created us for love. Our love is expressed not only by our soul, but also by our body. It is expressed by our body in two ways: in marriage, in a holy union which is destined to procreate life; and in celibacy for the direct glory of God, wherein we put our body at the service of God, sacrificing it in order to be free to serve Him completely. This is the teaching of the Church.

A Word of Encouragement

You know, when we feel we are quite isolated in defending Church doctrine and teaching, we at times get discouraged. Those who think the contrary are so numerous. We must be like the Apostles. After Christ had promised the Eucharist and had said, "If you do not eat My Body, if you do not drink My Blood, you will not enter into the kingdom of God" most of those who had been present at the miracles of the loaves left. St. Peter told our Lord, they are all leaving. You know the Apostles were discouraged and Christ told them, "Why, you would leave too if My Father had not given you the grace to stay." Because God had given St. Peter and the others the grace to stay, it meant for them a duty to help others open their souls and their minds to the grace of God. Even if we are not numerous, we should not be discouraged. It means we have a greater vocation, a greater duty, to make our voice heard and to show by our example that following God's law makes us happy, active, and ready to serve others.

But we should not feel we are few. At the end of the last century and at the beginning of this century a group of women (they were no more than 10 gathered together) decided that the laws of all the countries of the western world which prohibited contraception should be changed. They were, most of them, women of an advanced age; they were no more than 10. This was the beginning of the IPPS - International Planned Parenthood. They were not sustained by the State nor by anyone and they did not have much money at the time, but they had a conviction and they started working. You can see now the billions of dollars that IPPS has to spend every year in destroying lives and especially in the Third World, and in promoting sex education programs. So IPPS started with a small number, even fewer than the Apostles when they started, but see how powerful they are today. We should not be discouraged when we feel we are not numerous because we have something they did not have. Sure, they had to have the help of the devil, but Christ is stronger than the devil. We have the help of God. We have His grace if we are faithful to living first what we teach others and if we will teach others.

Humanae Vitae

Humanae Vitae is one of the most important documents in the history of the Church. I think it is one of the documents that has received more opposition than any other in the history of Catholic teaching. What came out on that occasion was something that was already existing. I remember very well; I was in Rome. I was working with some of the theologians who had received from the Holy Father the duty of studying the possibility of changing the rules on conjugal morality by allowing the pill. One day I had the visit of two theologians, one from Canada and one from England. They came to see me and they wanted me to insist that the prohibition against contraception be changed, because they said it was an obstacle to unity with our non-Catholic brethren. I said, well, how can the Church change rules that it has defended through centuries? How can the Church now say this is licit which was mortally sinful before? They told me, "Well, this is what we want to prove." Neither of them had been a teacher of moral theology; they were theologians but in other fields. They said that we have to prove that the Church has no authority to proclaim moral laws.

So the opposition to Humanae Vitae came mostly from such "theologians" who advanced the pretext that it was difficult for couples to observe the rules of morality in the present circumstances. But it is no more difficult than it was. We were thirteen in my home. We were born in two or three small rooms. We had the whole family living there. Most of our families in those days had more difficulties than anyone has now. Parents had children and they were happy with the children they had. It was not out of love for people in difficulty that "theologians" opposed Humanae Vitae. There is one theologian now who has written to the Holy Father saying, "I never opposed the doctrine of Humanae Vitae but only its application I opposed." He opposed it directly in his lectures and in the articles he wrote for the papers. He has opposed it from the beginning, even before Humanae Vitae [was published]. He says, "I never opposed the doctrine." When you need lies to defend your position, that is the best proof that you are wrong. Humanae Vitae is an important document.

When I first worked in Rome, I had to represent the Holy See at the Bucharest conference on population. Before that, I had occasion to meet the Holy Father to talk about Humanae Vitae because there was a lobby of theologians (organized by the major superior of one of the most numerous religious orders) who were going to Bucharest to talk against Humanae Vitae and try to have the people there at the world conference insist that the Pope change his teaching on contraception. They were convinced, you know; they were saying the only way for the Church to fight abortion is to make contraception easier - to allow contraception. But all statistics have shown that the countries where contraception is easily available are the countries where you have more abortion. You have heard such facts, so any pretension to make abortions less numerous by promoting contraception is just not in conformity with reality. They were going there trying to put pressure on the Holy Father so that he would change the doctrine. I heard that, and I talked to the Holy Father. Because the Holy Father (Pope Paul VI) was always depicted as someone who was afraid and not sure, I talked with him, and I really had the impression, a very deep impression, that in writing Humanae Vitae, he was especially inspired by God. I never saw a man (faced with all that opposition) so serene and so sure that the future would prove him right.

The week after Humanae Vitae, when he spoke to the faithful in St. Peters Square, he said "We have studied, read, discussed and prayed much - prayed much, asking for the light of the Holy Spirit. We have put our conscience in full and free disposition at the service of truth, trying to interpret the divine norm that we see as coming forth from the intrinsic requirement of authentic human love, the essential structure of the institution of marriage, the personal dignity of the spouses, and the sanctity of Christian marriage. We have pondered the consequences of an alternative decision, and We have had no doubt about our duty to make the exact pronouncement as worded in the encyclical."

So those who say Humane Vitae is not an irreformable document, or who say it is a reformable document, just have to read the encyclical the way the Pope has presented it to know that it represents the true authentic teaching of Christ through the ministry of Peter.

What Pope Paul VI told to me is that, little by little, people of good will have understood that he was right. This has been confirmed in many places. Last year, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, I took part in a Congress at Princeton University. It is very symptomatic of the situation of our Universities that there were two universities who celebrated the 20th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. One was Steubenville and the other one was Princeton University (not a Catholic University). Princeton, a large and important private University accepted to host a Congress for the 20th anniversary of Humanae Vitae! Moreover, the speakers there were not all Catholic. They were from other faiths. Every one of them said from physiological, sociological and other points of view that Pope Paul VI had been proven right. Everything that he had foreseen in no. 17 in the encyclical has been revealed, unfortunately, to be true. It is a document which we must know and which we must be ready to implement in our lives, if married, and to show others that it is possible to live it.

Familiaris Consortio

Its teaching is not easy and the Holy Father says in the encyclical that the grace of God is there to help us to practice it, and that God never asks more than we can do with the help of His Grace. The doctrine of Humanae Vitae was recalled by the Church at the Synod on the Family and again in the document of Familiaris Consortio. That Instruction was written and given its final wording by the Pope while he was recovering from the attempt on his life. He took the resolutions of the Synod on the Family, couched in difficult scholastic language, reflected on them and put in his own experience of years of work in the service of the family in his diocese before coming to Rome. He wrote Familiaris Consortio and later on explained the preoccupation he had in the document to respect the will of God and the laws written by God in our nature.

At the first meeting of the Curial cardinals around Christmas of the same year, the Holy Father said that during the long days and weeks of suffering, his suffering was physical, surely, but his suffering was more spiritual and moral because he had difficultly understanding how someone would want to kill someone who wanted the good of everybody, who taught peace, and all that. The first words he said after the attempt on his life were, "How can they do that to me?" So he suffered morally and spiritually; his message was like Christ; but his message of peace and goodness was being refused to the point of putting his life in danger. He suffered very much. He said, "God made me understand then that suffering had been sent to me so that I would offer my life in reparation for all the sins that are committed against life." That was what was in the depth of his heart when he wrote Familiaris Consortio and this is why he continually brings us back to the plan of God the Father, the loving God who has given us rules for our own happiness.

This Instruction should be read with that background of the Pope writing it with deep concern and deep suffering for the sins that are committed against life in society today. He felt he had to be a victim for that. He was not a victim who died on that date, but he is a victim every day of his own life when you see how his defense of life is contradicted by theologians in many of the countries that call themselves civilized and cultured. It is a crucifixion of the Holy Father every day, but still he keeps on telling the truth everywhere he goes.

It was difficult for him, for instance, when he went to the northern countries recently. There in Scandinavia Catholics are few, but even there an ever greater number of young people, young married couples, are reacting against the atmosphere of laxity in morality; and they are looking for someone to lead them. He spoke very clearly in defense of life against abortion, sterilization, contraception, and euthanasia. He spoke very clearly about all these subjects. Then you read in certain Catholic papers that the Holy Father was very prudent; he talked about those subjects only in front of Catholic audiences. That is completely false! He spoke of that at universities that are not Catholic. At meetings of scientists, he spoke of that everywhere. But see how people will try to diminish the strength of what he said by saying things they know are not true.

A similar thing occurred in a course which I took part in, in Washington. One of the students told me he had been at a meeting where they talked about the instruction of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith on genetic engineering and artificial insemination and all those things, and somebody there said it is "only an instruction of a Congregation." "If the Pope had really wanted it to be binding on the conscience of Catholics, he would have issued an encyclical, or he would have put it another way." Well, it is an instruction approved by the Holy Father; and the Holy Father before approving it had long meetings and working lunches with theologians to give it the form it now has. But some people always try to find excuses not to follow what is clear and simple and what really comes from the Magisterium of Peter. So this is a continual cross for the Holy Father.


In conclusion, it is a personal obligation for all of us to observe what the Church teaches us on conjugal morality. I recall something the Holy Father said to a group of young priests who at the end of a course on Humanae Vitae were to exercise the responsibility of a priest in spiritual direction. He told them that their pastoral ministry should be an expression of their love for God and their love for the faithful; and he said you must learn to reconcile the human conscience of married people with the God of truth and the God of love. You must show married people that what the Church teaches is no more than the original plan imprinted by the Creator in the humanity of the man and woman who unite themselves in matrimony redeemed by Christ the Redeemer. That teaching that you will proclaim is written in their hearts. They might contradict it more vigorously when they feel it contradicts their inner feelings but they know it is wrong and because they know it is wrong, they may try to defend and justify themselves more vocally.

Once I told the Holy Father that he was attacked by people who felt that too many people were following his teaching and that millions of dollars given by the government of their country for programs of birth control were lost because of his voice in the Third World. I told him, "You should keep on speaking because, see, even your enemies recognize that your voice is heard." He told me, "My voice is heard, not because I say it but because I say what God has put in the depth of the human heart." This is why, when the Holy Father goes to speak to young people, he receives, such a response (because he says what God has put in the hearts of people). He says the same thing to those priests: "What you will teach is what God has written in the hearts of the people." You must know that the fidelity of the priests to that truth and to the norms of Humanae Vitae must be paid for at a high price. One will become the object of ridicule. He will be accused of lack of understanding, of hardness of heart, and many other things because he teaches the Word of God. In fact, truth is not easily accepted by a heart in which lust reigns.

So, the difficulty for many people to accept the Church's teaching results from the fact that chastity has not been taught. Self-control has not been taught, has not been taught in the field of sexuality, and has not been taught in the rest of the life. Parents might teach their children very good norms about chastity, but, if at the same time they give them everything they want as food and things to play with and all that, then they should not be surprised when their children are not overcoming their lust and their desires. Formation involves temperance. Chastity is just one part of the virtue of temperance. It all goes together. Moreover, reconciling consciences to the truth of God, the Holy Father says, must pass through the remission of sins. So priests must always be there when sinners look after them to get forgiveness and to get enlightenment.

I think this is very important - the teaching of the Holy Father. He has repeated every time that the doctrine of Humanae Vitae is a traditional doctrine of the Church which cannot be doubted or brought into question. He has insisted on that, but on that occasion when he talked to young priests, he told them it is not enough to preach the doctrine, you have to be there to help the people understand it, to help them overcome the difficulties and temptations, and to help them grow in a spiritual life.

I think this is true for all of us. We have to be very strong and faithful in preserving and teaching Catholic doctrine. But we will have no impact if we do not imitate Christ who was a teacher but at the same time a healer, benefactor, one who was kind to the children, one who was kind to the weak. In our teaching we will have much more influence if it is accompanied by a life of dedication.

I do not think a priest who has renounced marriage but who has gotten married to his car or to his summer camp or to his daily golf game can effectively teach Humanae Vitae. Such a priest will not be present to hear confessions. At the request of the Holy Father, I visited the churches and houses of a group of priests who have separated themselves now from the Holy Father. I would say that most of those who have joined the group went there because they could not find priests to hear their confessions. They would have to go 100 miles before finding a priest to hear their confession. When they could find one who was a member of the St. Pius X fraternity, they went to him. You know we will not be heard - our teaching will not be heard, if we are not there to help people. And what is true of priests is also true of couples. The Holy Father has said it very clearly many times: those who find happiness in following God's rules in marriage have a great duty to show their gratitude to God by helping others know the truth, and by helping them also to be faithful to the will of God.

Cardinal Gagnon is former Prefect of the Pontifical Council for the Family.