Part 5: Life Issues
By Marian Friedrichs (Mar 18, 2016)
The following is the fifth in our series on Catholic social teaching.
To the outrage or bafflement of many, the very heart of the Church's teachings on human dignity is its steadfast opposition to abortion, contraception, artificial reproduction, and attempts to redefine marriage — wrongs that have become accepted by many as "rights." Why does the Church continue to stand by her millennia-old principles regarding these matters? To answer this question, I think it would helpful to examine two of the Church's definitions: that of the human person and that of marriage.
The Human Person
The Church teaches that the human person is the only earthly creature God created for its own sake. We may evaluate anything else on earth by the standard of usefulness, but never a person. The worth of a person is intrinsic and unalterable. It's not dependent on his or her health, abilities, or stage of life. Rather, it's derived from the mere fact of that person's creation in the image and likeness of God.
This is why Fr. Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II), in his 1960 book Love and Responsibility, identified objectification and exploitation as the antitheses of love. To use a person as an object means to base his worth on what one can "get out of him," which is never permissible in the Catholic worldview.
Catholics believe that the uniqueness of man lies in his identity as both a physical and spiritual being. Each human being exists as a united body and soul. And that soul is immortal. When death separates it from the body, it will live forever in either Heaven or hell (and for some Heaven-bound souls, a finite time in Purgatory). This explains why the moment of conception is so sacred in the eyes of the Church: Once the biological material provided by the mother and father are united to each other and infused with the soul provided by God, the eternal existence of a unique and unrepeatable human being has begun.
Because the Church values the human person so highly, she naturally values marriage highly as well, because in marriage two precious and priceless human beings entrust themselves to one another, each pledging to value the other as he or she ought to be valued and to welcome and care for any other precious and priceless human beings who may come into existence through their union.
Once united in soul through the exchange of vows, the spouses then become united in body through sexual intercourse, which the Church often calls "the marriage act." As only a priest has the authority to celebrate Mass, only a married couple has the right to have sex. The reason the Church holds human sexual activity in such high regard, as a privilege exclusively reserved for those who have made a formal commitment to each other and who consent to accept the responsibility of raising any children who result from their relationship, comes back to that concept of human dignity.
Since the human person is a union of body and soul, the sexual act is never purely physical with us as it is with animals. Rather, it involves the whole self, whether the participants want it to or not, because it is meant to be the consummation and renewal of a couple's wedding vows. The purposes of sex are identical to the purposes of marriage: first, the procreation of children, and second, the joyful bonding of husband and wife. (Yes, it often involves physical pleasure, too, but that is not its purpose. Sensual pleasure is a "bonus gift" from the loving Father who wants us to enjoy the good things He created.)
This explains why one of the conditions for a valid marriage to take place is that the couple must be capable of performing, not just any sexual activity, but the specific act that is naturally ordered toward procreation. Of course, not every such act will result in conception, but to be validly married, a couple must be able to perform the act and must be willing to allow God to make it fruitful if He chooses (which explains why, though infertility is not an impediment to marriage, impotence is). Therefore, if a couple goes through a wedding but never consummates the marriage, or if the bride and groom exchange vows while intending to remain deliberately childless, they were never really married at all; a Church tribunal would declare their vows null.
Matters of Life
My hope now is that, with these definitions established, we can better understand why the Church teaches what she does about those "life issues."
If the moment of conception produces a unique and unrepeatable human being with whom God wants to bless the world and whom He hopes will choose to live with Him forever in Heaven, then abortion commits the ultimate injustice against the person by treating the child as an object to be disposed of, perhaps after being harvested for useable parts.
If marriage is the sacred union of two people who must be able to join their bodies together in the act ordered toward procreation and who must promise to allow God's creative power to work through them, then contraception breaks the couple's promises; artificial reproduction degrades procreation to a mere manufacturing process while treating the child as a thing to be acquired rather than as a person to be welcomed; and marriage between two people of the same sex is simply not possible.
Even after reading these explanations, I know that many people will continue to reject the Church's teachings on these issues. Many also will continue to hope that the Church will someday change those teachings, but such hopes will never become reality.
The Lord Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, promised to guide His Church always, so that the gates of hell would never prevail against her (see Mt 16:18). He did not promise that the gates of hell would never prevail against you or me as individuals. Therefore, while we can and do tragically fall victim to the Father of Lies, agreeing to listen to him when he tries to talk us out of believing in the goodness, truth, and beauty of God's laws, the Word of God assures us that the Church will continue to preserve and defend those laws until the end of the world.
View past articles from this series.