A Commentary on the Pastoral Message of the Canadian Bishops: "Liberating Potential"

Doug McManaman
and Cale Clarke
Copyright © 2006
Reproduced with Permission

On September 26th, 2008, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral message on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, entitled Liberating Potential, a very positive and tightly compact document that calls the faithful to a discovery - or a rediscovery for some - of the basic moral and theological principles of Humanae Vitae, an encyclical that has proven to be, in the words of the bishops, a "prophetic document".

The bishops immediately point out that Humanae Vitae sparked a great deal of controversy, much of it, however, rooted in a basic misunderstanding. They emphasize that the encyclical was much more than a 'no' to contraception; for behind that 'no' is a vast and profound understanding of the dignity and meaning of human sexuality, which Pope John Paul II did much to expound. It is within this broader context that the encyclical must be understood if it is to be fully appreciated. Thus, Liberating Potential provides the proper theological framework in which the Church's teaching on the transmission of human life can be correctly understood.

To explain this further, consider the teaching of morality to a group of adolescents. Were a teacher to immediately begin discussing moral issues of a personal nature, such as why non-marital intercourse is wrong, without first laying the groundwork through a comprehensive treatment of the nature of love, basic moral precepts, the nature of marriage, etc., then all the students will hear is a resounding 'no' that will inevitably come across as unnecessarily restrictive. The chances of getting any of them to appreciate the truth of Catholic moral teaching will not be very good.

This is not to suggest that Humanae Vitae fell into this mistake; it did not. Rather, back in the late 60s, many were anticipating that the Church's teaching would be changed, and so when they learned that it hadn't, they - including many priests - simply didn't bother reading the encyclical, but instead bought in to the caricature that it was nothing more than a 'no' to contraception.

And so the bishops now invite us to rediscover this teaching, to meditate on it and integrate it into our lives. But 'invitation' has two possible meanings. We often invite people to parties or weddings, and if circumstances are not permitting, one may turn down the invitation. Doing so is not necessarily unreasonable.

This is not the sense in which the bishops employ the word 'invitation' here. The emphasis is not on a conditional "if it pleases you to come", but rather on a respect for the integrity of the freedom of the individual's response. In no way does 'invitation' lessen the weight and absoluteness of the call. When God invites, He calls, but to freely turn down His invitation is to commit a grave injustice (Cf. Mt 22, 1-14).

Section 3 underscores the prophetic nature of Humanae Vitae, for it was in section 17 of the latter that Paul VI foretold that the widespread use of contraception would open the way for marital infidelity. We saw that when children and the responsibility associated with them are separated from the sexual act, as contraception succeeds in doing, an important condition that had the effect of discouraging infidelity was removed. The Pope also predicted a gradual loss of reverence due to women. Indeed, such irreverence was spawned when a woman's fertility began to be treated as a disease. He foresaw a general lowering of moral standards, something that everyone seems to complain about these days, and he warned of the possible imposition of contraceptive methods by public authorities, a practice we now witness in China.

We've witnessed a rise in marital infidelity coupled with a steady decline in marriage since the 1960s sexual revolution, and despite the efforts of modern feminism, the female body continues to be commercialized and exploited - more so now than ever. Statistics reveal that almost 40% of children in the U.S. are born out of wedlock, and social scientists now have ample evidence that divorce hurts kids, that children need mothers and fathers, that cohabitation - although on the rise - is significantly different than marriage and is not quite the bargain that many thought it would be.

Theology of the Body

Sections 5-12 of Liberating Potential are devoted to a concise explanation of the Theology of the Body (TOB), the first major teaching project of Pope John Paul II's pontificate. The TOB is made up of 129 Wednesday general audience talks that spanned from 1979-1984, which, taken together, constitute perhaps John Paul's greatest bequeathment to the Church. They are a masterful presentation of the Church's teaching on the meaning of the human body, sexuality, and the family.

The Canadian Bishops are well aware of the organic connections between Humanae Vitae and the Theology of the Body. In fact, Pope John Paul II viewed the TOB as the full flowering of the teaching of Humanae Vitae. But just as a flower appears different from the seed that spawned it - larger, richer, and more complex - there are some obvious differences between the two papal teachings.

John Paul II combines a concern for Scripture with the philosophical strengths of Humanae Vitae, a document that does not cite any biblical text. Part one of the Theology of the Body is an extended commentary on the words of Christ about "the beginning" of male-female relationships in Genesis. Part two deals with the "great sacrament" of marriage, as discussed by Saint Paul in Ephesians 5. The final section is devoted to a commentary on Humanae Vitae.

In the end, John Paul arrives at an "adequate anthropology", a vision of the human person and the purpose of human life, which is actually a biblical anthropology. As the bishops point out, this very meaning and purpose of human life is to learn to love as God loves. God is love (1 John 4:12) and he expresses his love in a unique way in and through the body of Christ, God made man. This love of God in Christ is, as emphasized by Liberating Potential, free, total, faithful, and fruitful.

In fact, this love of Christ for his spouse, the Church, is precisely what the wedding vows in the marriage ritual are meant to reflect: "Have you come here freely, to give yourself without reserve (totally) ...Do you promise to be faithful...will you accept children (fruitfully)..."

In a world where people are desperately seeking true love, this is the model: a freely given, life-giving, and total gift of self, faithful unto death. The crucified Christ, pouring out his life for his bride, is the exemplar of such love. And true love is a total gift of self.

The sacrament of Marriage is thus to be a sign to the world of the love of Christ for the Church.

But contraceptive acts of marriage tear down that sign. Here exists a major point of contact between Humanae Vitae and the Theology of the Body. Contraception, says John Paul, introduces a lie into the language of love (cf. general audience of August 22, 1984). What is that lie? The act of sexual union in marriage speaks of a total gift of self, but one is not giving oneself totally if the gift of fertility is deliberately held back from the other.

And, if sexual love is no longer about a total gift of self, the danger is that it may eventually degenerate into a use of the other (for my sake, rather than the other's sake) - the very opposite of love.

This is why Christ calls us back to God's original intent for sexual union within marriage between man and woman: "in the beginning it was not so" (Matt. 19:8). Because Christ wants to restore that original intent for marriage prior to the arrival of sin and concupiscence, John Paul asks in the TOB, "What was it like in the beginning?"

He speaks of the three "original" experiences of humanity, as revealed in Genesis: Original Solitude, Original Unity, and Original Nakedness. Original Solitude has to do with Adam's being alone in the world, even though he is surrounded by other bodily creatures (the animals). John Paul explains: "Based on the experience of his body, man might have reached the conclusion that he was similar to the animals...instead, he reached the conviction that he was alone". Adam had no one like him to love and be loved by.

All of this changed, of course, with the creation of Eve. The conjugal union of the first marriage resulted in Original Unity. But it is Original Nakedness that John Paul II says constitutes the "key" for understanding all of the Theology of the Body. It is encapsulated in Genesis 2:25: "the man and his wife were both naked, and felt no shame". Why?

Adam and Eve experienced their conjugal love as the call to love in God's image: freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully. Their desire was to make a gift of themselves to one another, lovingly, never to use one another, lustfully. As John Paul II points out, love is the opposite of use. Love is not a selfish taking, but a self-donation.

After the Fall, the temptation to use others' bodies has been ever-present; in fact, an enduring propensity. It would take the Incarnation - God the Son taking on human flesh - to redeem the way we love one another with our bodies. Christ crucified shows us at once what true love looks like: a total gift of self-given freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully.

Because of our wounded human nature, we cannot love purely and selflessly as we ought. This can only be achieved by the power of the cross, manifested in our lives, relationships, and marriages.

Not only is marriage is a sign in time of the eternal reality of the marriage of Christ and his Church, the family also is a sign to the world, an earthly icon of a far greater heavenly reality, namely the Trinity. Man does not image God so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion (14 November 1979); for in the "moment of communion", the "two become one" so much so that in nine months there may be a need to give that "one" a name. The conception and birth of a child makes three in one - three persons in one family.

This is how the human family images the Trinity to the world, for God is not a solitary being, but a Trinity - a family - of persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The life and the love we share in our families should point others to God.

Concluding Thoughts

Section 14 of Liberating Potential emphasizes that procreation must always be seen against the background of the communion that married love brings about. Procreation is the fruit of love, and so in this sense, procreation is second - not secondary - , that is, it comes after communion and is its visible expression. The two (love and life) form a unity such that to pursue one by deliberately canceling the other is to harm the good one pursues in the first place.

Contraception separated the goods of communion and procreation in reality, which spawned a mentality in which the two (marriage and children) became separated mentally (thus, the contraceptive mentality). Hence, in the minds of a great many people, marriage has nothing essentially to do with children, and having children does not necessarily have anything to do with marriage (at least for the parents of close to 40% of all children). Perhaps that is why marriage is regarded, generally speaking, not so much as an institution of a social nature, but as a personal friendship with insurance benefits.

And so the Canadian bishops' urgent insistence on the inseparability of the unitive and procreative goods of the sexual act is fully protective of marriage and the meaning of marital love. To revere the act's openness to its procreative potential by not willingly impeding it via contraception is a function of one's reverence for marital communion - for one's spouse. In this light, the bishops are not so much bullies out to make married life significantly less joyful as they are solicitous fathers protecting the goods of marriage so as to secure the conditions that will enrich to the full the lives of married couples, families, and the civil community as a whole.

Incidentally, the only place we encounter the word "conscience" is section 16, in which couples are expected to discern whether it is the moment for them to give life to a new child. "If in conscience they deem that they should delay a birth for serious reasons because of physical, economic or psychological conditions, natural planning methods will allow them to manage their fertility, while respecting the indivisible link, the unitive and procreative goods."

In other words, determining when birth should be delayed is a matter of prudence to which the Church provides only general directives (i.e., serious reasons because of physical, economic, or psychological…etc.). Whether to use contraception or NFP, however, is not a matter of prudence, because contraception in itself is always contrary to prudence (reason). Hence, the reason the bishops quote section 12 of Humanae Vitae: "Abortion, sterilization and contraception are in opposition to the Creator's intention at the heart of sexual intercourse, preventing, if God so desires, the creation of a unique soul for the unique body that the spouses help to form."

What is noteworthy about this new document is its very positive outlook on self-discipline with respect to the sexual act. Continence is not regarded as a burden, but as a blessing that contributes to the flourishing of married love. To love and revere the human person in his and her totality involves a love and reverence of his and her fertility. To make periodic sacrifices for the sake of honoring that fertility is itself an expression of genuine love.

Sexuality in its integrity "is a friend", but the contraceptive mentality habituates us to regard an essential part of it (fertility) as an enemy from which one needs to protect oneself. Hence, the bishops' reference to Paul VI and John Paul II as issuing "an immense challenge to a world that is too often occupied with protecting itself against the extraordinary life potential of sexuality."

In the end, the Canadian bishops call Catholics to begin leading the world back to an appreciation of the integrity of the sexual act by their example, and especially through the education of youth and young families. For it is not only priests, religious, and deacons who have a ministry; married couples too have a specific ministry in the Church, what the bishops refer to as the ministry of life and love, which they describe as important, difficult, yet having great dignity.

Although this document makes no mention of the 1968 Winnipeg Statement, we would argue that since a pastoral response is one that bears upon a particular people, situated in a particular place at a particular time in history, Liberating Potential supplants the Winnipeg Statement, rendering it obsolete, especially in light of the fact that a great deal of information is available to us today that was not available back in 68. Just one example, the birth control pill was ten times the dosage it is today. As such, it was thoroughly contraceptive, unlike today's low dose pill, which acts as an abortifacient about 25% of the time. Hence, the pill is not an option for anyone who has even a rudimentary understanding of the principles of life ethics.

And so we join our prayers to those of the Canadian bishops that the faithful in Canada - priests, deacons, sisters, and married couples - will magnanimously accept the challenge and begin rebuilding a culture of life in the midst of this culture of death, and to do so in a spirit of confidence and hope in the Lord's promise that we will be victorious in the end; for indeed, that victory has already been won. Christ is risen!