By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Next week, I will write about the tragic anniversary of the infamous Roe v. Wade decision of the United States Supreme Court, legalizing abortion in our country. It is necessary that we keep this ongoing tragedy before our eyes. However, in rightfully defending the life of the unborn, we do not want to give credence to a message, spoken or unspoken, that treats unborn children as a “problem” to be solved or as a “punishment” visited upon a young woman for engaging in sexual activity.
It is necessary to place the gift of children in the context in which God’s plan has intended them to be: within the committed and stable relationship of marriage. Just as the Church’s defense of the human person is sometimes misunderstood and distorted, so is her entire teaching on the place of children in a marriage.
Last year, we recalled the fortieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s landmark Encyclical Humanae Vitae. Since that document reiterated the constant teaching of the Church, founded on natural law, that artificial means of preventing birth are illicit, it is primarily remembered for that. It is unfortunate that this document is not seen in its entirety: a beautiful commentary on human love, the dignity of women and the beauty and responsibility of bringing children into the world.
Recently, Dr. Janet Smith, professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, gave a very fine address at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. Dr. Smith is an expert on life issues and has written extensively on the proper understanding of Humanae Vitae. In this recent talk, she pointed out that the common translation of a key Latin phrase in this Encyclical as “responsible parenthood,” has clouded the true meaning and beautiful commentary on love and families found in Humanae Vitae. It is her suggestion of an alternate and more accurate translation, “conscious parenting,” that gives us the title of our topic this week.
The phrase “conscious parenting” enables us to highlight what should come before the conception of a child, rather than what comes afterwards, thereby avoiding that “problem” or “punishment” mentality that can so easily be fallen into.
This concept is also an expression of a greater safeguard for the emotional and mental health of a woman, for whom in a very special way, the entire act of love, conception and birth has a profound meaning and far-reaching effect.
Dr. Smith points out that conscious parenthood should be central to a relationship. When sexual relations are seen as the coming together of two people in the most intimate act of self-giving, having as part of its very nature the possible conception of a child, it is difficult to reduce this act to a mere means of physical pleasure.
The widespread concept and practice of what has been called “recreational sex” and the distorted view of sexual and human relationships that we are bombarded with on television and in the movies have completely distorted what has been intended by God to be a source of security, love and pleasure in the loving context of a committed relationship called marriage.
Dr. Smith summarized this in the following way: “If people are conscious of the fact that sex leads not just to a baby but to being a parent with someone, they will much more responsibly pursue sexual relationships. If I am going to be a parent with someone, I must clearly love that person and I must want to affirm that person. So I choose as a future spouse someone suitable to be a parent. I’ve chosen that person because of what I think are their virtues and goodness rather than just my sexual desires” (Lecture, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, December 2008).
Pope John Paul II’s “Love and Responsibility”
In Dr. Smith’s presentation, she draws heavily on the concepts expressed in Pope John Paul II’s book, “Love and Responsibility” (Ignatius Press). This work, written before he became Pope, was the result of the many years of pastoral work that Father, later Bishop and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla exercised among young people. He certainly does not ignore the human emotions and senses that go into the forming of a loving relationship. He writes: “Everyone must effectively deploy the energies latent in his sensuality and his sentiments, so they become allies in his striving for authentic love. The sexual urge in a person is a fact which must be recognized and welcomed as a source of natural energy.” However, as he was to write later as Pope: “A love which is reduced only to the satisfaction of concupiscence or to a man’s and woman’s mutual ‘use’ of each other, makes persons slaves to their weaknesses. So-called ‘safe-sex,’ which is touted by the ‘civilization of technology,’ is actually, in the view of the overall requirements of the person, radically not safe, indeed it is extremely dangerous. It endangers both the person and the family. And what is the danger? It is the loss of the truth about one’s own self and about the family, together with the risk of a loss of freedom and consequently of a loss of love itself” (Letter to Families, 1994).
While sexual desire is important and has been placed within the human person as part of his or her authentic make-up, it is properly guided and truly “safe” when there is a mutual consciousness of parenthood and the desire to share, when possible, that exalted responsibility with another person. This consciousness is an antidote to the inspanidual weakness of the man or woman and to the shortsightedness that can bring about life without a desire or ability to protect and nurture that life.
Since acting in this manner goes against nature itself, meaning that it goes against God’s basic plan for our happiness and fulfillment, it should not be a surprise that these situations lead to so much heartache afterwards. Speaking again of the term “conscious parenthood,” Dr. Smith said: “It means you really understand what a fantastic thing it is to be able to bring into existence a new human being, that you are basically a pro-creator with God, that you are bringing something forth of infinite value, and you’ve chosen this other person, this spouse, to be the one with whom you engage in that.”
Conscious parenthood and contraception
With the widespread availability of artificial means of contraception, beginning in the 1960s, there came to be a gradual separation of the act of intimacy from the possibility or openness to the conception of a child. This made it possible to look at another person as purely an object and means of pleasure and physical gratification.
Pope Paul VI, in Humanae Vitae, warned that this would lead to a “contraceptive mentality” which would cause great psychological harm, especially to women, and an eventual use of sexual activity solely as a means of pleasure. As we have said before, it would give Pope Paul VI no satisfaction to know that his predictions have come about exactly as foretold. The complete separation of sexual relations from an openness to the conception of a child has been the ultimate result of many of the attitudes communicated in the past forty years, especially in the world of popular entertainment. Dr. Smith comments: “The task of finding a sexual partner is very, very different from finding a future parent, and so you assess people very differently.”
Praise for the many responsible parents found in society
At this time, it is necessary to state that although I have taken up this observation of Dr. Janet Smith concerning “conscious parenthood” as related to “responsible parenthood,” I do want to affirm those who become very effective and loving parents, even if there was not a “conscious parenting” in the first place. I include the many heroic single parents, adoptive parents and those who serve in loving and responsible roles, where they often take the place of parents. Nor would I want anyone to become discouraged or disheartened when dealing with human struggles and weaknesses. We are not speaking so much of human weakness or inspanidual sinful acts when addressing this week’s topic as much as we are addressing a mentality or outlook concerning the gift of human sexuality, children and mutual love and self-giving within marriage.
The challenge that I will address once again next week concerning the great American tragedy of abortion is part of a larger picture. We are grateful to Dr. Smith for her insights into helping us see that picture more clearly.
15 January 2009