Halloween nears, and I can’t explain to you what a vast relief it is to me to be Catholic. I embrace wholeheartedly the sentiment expressed by the late Servant of God Fr. John Hardon:
[The Catholic Faith] ‘fits together’ in such a way that each truth we believe sheds light on other truths; the result is a marvelously coherent unity.
The absence of any kind of marvelous “coherent unity” in Evangelical thought was something that had really started to bother me back before I became Catholic. A lot of it stems from Protestantism’s break with historic Christianity. There is simply no continuity with the beliefs of the body of Christ down through the ages. When you bypass the Church’s understanding of Scripture and seek truth solely in Bible verses lifted out of their Scriptural context and separated from historical Christian understanding, you end up with a choppy theology composed of compartmentalized “truths,” a patchwork belief quilt sewn together with Bible-only thread. Catholic convert Steve Ray commented on this disjointed, piecemeal approach to theology:
Without continuity with the early Church and the intervening centuries, Protestantism was like a branch without a tree, a wing without a bird.
In other words, Protestant theology has much of the truth, but it has been disconnected from other truths, so encountering it is like finding a perfectly good bird’s wing – but where’s the rest of the creature? I thought of it, rather gruesomely, as shaking a hand outstretched in welcome, only to find that that hand was connected to… nothing. Considering that we were talking about my belief system, it all seemed just short of macabre.
Contemplate for a moment the Evangelical acceptance of artificial contraception. Evangelicals break with 2,000 years of Christian condemnation of contraception because this practice is nowhere forbidden in so many words in the Bible. The thinking goes like this:
- Abortion is clearly evil because you are ending a life. Remember, thou shalt not kill (the 6th Commandment for Protestants – Catholics follow St. Augustine’s system and consider this the 5th commandment).
- Euthanasia is clearly evil because you are ending a life. See #1.
- The death penalty is clearly SUPER because the Bible teaches that God gave the state the power to end the lives of certain people. THOU shalt not kill, but your elected officials certainly may.
In this scheme of things, contraception is fine because you are not killing; you are merely preventing life from coming into existence. There is no “thou shalt not prevent the conception of a new human life” in Scripture. Of course, we’re talking about contraception within marriage. Contraception outside of marriage isn’t a sin per se, but:
- SEX outside of marriage IS a sin. Thou shalt not commit adultery! Flee fornication!
- Christian kids are taught abstinence in sex education classes and given chastity rings because God has commanded chastity until marriage.
- Masturbation is not prohibited in the Bible and therefore is not a sin – unless you experience lustful thoughts when committing the act. Lustful thoughts ARE mentioned in the Bible and are condemned. That’s why pornography is wrong.
- Homosexual acts are a sin. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. God didn’t rain fire and brimstone down on Sodom and Gomorrah because He disapproved of their system of municipal lien certificates!!
- Polygamy is seriously wrong. Serial monogamy, however, is fine, as long as your divorces have been “biblical.”
- Celibacy is just kind of weird.
See how it goes? It’s a set of rules based upon verses or compilations of verses in the Bible. No verse – no rule.
No real connection between them – God has for our own good simply prohibited certain things; He makes the rules, and we must inform ourselves of the rules and be careful to keep them.
Compare that approach with the teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject of “human life” and the 5th commandment:
“Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.“
In the account of Abel’s murder by his brother Cain, Scripture reveals the presence of anger and envy in man, consequences of original sin, from the beginning of human history. Man has become the enemy of his fellow man. God declares the wickedness of this fratricide: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.”
The covenant between God and mankind is interwoven with reminders of God’s gift of human life and man’s murderous violence:
For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning. . . . Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.
The Old Testament always considered blood a sacred sign of life. This teaching remains necessary for all time.
Scripture specifies the prohibition contained in the fifth commandment: “Do not slay the innocent and the righteous.” The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.
In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, “You shall not kill,” and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance. Going further, Christ asks his disciples to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies. He did not defend himself and told Peter to leave his sword in its sheath.
The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not.”
Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:
If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.
Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others.
The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.
The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.
Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
The fifth commandment forbids doing anything with the intention of indirectly bringing about a person’s death. The moral law prohibits exposing someone to mortal danger without grave reason, as well as refusing assistance to a person in danger.
The acceptance by human society of murderous famines, without efforts to remedy them, is a scandalous injustice and a grave offense. Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them.
Unintentional killing is not morally imputable. But one is not exonerated from grave offense if, without proportionate reasons, he has acted in a way that brings about someone’s death, even without the intention to do so.
Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.
Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:
You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.
God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.
The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:
“The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death.“
Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.
Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.
Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.
Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator.
The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.
Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.
Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable. Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.
You see? The Church knows the Bible verses – no question about that. But she has spent 2,000 years thinking about the 5th Commandment, “pondering these things in her heart,” and presents us with a seamlessly woven teaching on human life, encompassing the connections between abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty along with “usurious and avaricious dealings” leading to “hunger and death,” and the sin of self murder (and much more – I was forced to condense this), explaining to us that it is wrong to take a human life, yet showing us why under certain circumstances self defense, the death penalty, and the refusal of “overzealous treatment” can be legitimate options, whereas abortion and euthanasia can never be. These seemingly unconnected issues are all intertwined, because “Human life is sacred“ – it is a gift from God.
Okay, so all this ties together beautifully, but where’s the connection to the Church’s prohibition on contraception? Isn’t that just arbitrary?
The tradition of the Church has understood the sixth commandment [thou shalt not commit adultery] as encompassing the whole of human sexuality.
Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.
The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift.
The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech.
Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy. “Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end.”
Whoever wants to remain faithful to his baptismal promises and resist temptations will want to adopt the means for doing so: self-knowledge, practice of an ascesis adapted to the situations that confront him, obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, and fidelity to prayer. “Indeed it is through chastity that we are gathered together and led back to the unity from which we were fragmented into multiplicity.”
The virtue of chastity comes under the cardinal virtue of temperance, which seeks to permeate the passions and appetites of the senses with reason.
Chastity represents an eminently personal task; it also involves a cultural effort, for there is “an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.” Chastity presupposes respect for the rights of the person, in particular the right to receive information and an education that respect the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life.
Chastity is a moral virtue. It is also a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort. The Holy Spirit enables one whom the water of Baptism has regenerated to imitate the purity of Christ.
Charity is the form of all the virtues. Under its influence, chastity appears as a school of the gift of the person. Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of self. Chastity leads him who practices it to become a witness to his neighbor of God’s fidelity and loving kindness.
All the baptized are called to chastity. The Christian has “put on Christ,” the model for all chastity. All Christ’s faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life. At the moment of his Baptism, the Christian is pledged to lead his affective life in chastity.
“People should cultivate [chastity] in the way that is suited to their state of life. Some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner. Others live in the way prescribed for all by the moral law, whether they are married or single.” Married people are called to live conjugal chastity; others practice chastity in continence.
Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.
By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.”
Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.
Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.
Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
Sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion. Marriage bonds between baptized persons are sanctified by the sacrament.
“Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death.”
“The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude.” Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure:
The Creator himself . . . established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator has intended for them. At the same time, spouses should know how to keep themselves within the limits of just moderation.
The spouses’ union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family.
So why is contraception wrong? Because we’re not just talking about “life.” Plants have “life.” Animals have “life.” We are talking about “human life.” “Human life is sacred” – remember? Why?
Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, Who is its sole end.
There is a fundamental difference between our lives and the lives of animals – God is our end. He has created us in His image for Himself. It is His will that human beings become what He has created them to be; in order to do that, we must live truly human lives (see above).
We humans were not created to live for ourselves; we were created to live as God lives, in a constant pouring out of ourselves for Him and for others. To give ourselves to God and to others is the purpose for which we were created, because God is the Eternal Giver and Eternal Gift. Human life exists that it may pour itself out as a gift, in imitation of the Holy Trinity, the Persons of which give Themselves completely and unceasingly to each other. The Trinity is, in other words, Three Persons, One Life.
Married persons make a gift of their body and their life to their spouse, to the extent that they become one body. Celibate persons make a gift of their body to God, while making a gift of their life to their fellow man. No one is to keep his or her body or life for himself or herself; all are meant to give themselves, because we were created to give ourselves away. Animals procreate. Our sexuality becomes truly human when and only “when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman,” that is, when it is both “procreative and unitive.” We must lay down our claim to our own life, giving all that we are, withholding nothing – including the capacity for creating new life that God gave us. Truly human sexual acts must be open to the gift of life. What would make withholding your fertility from God and your spouse acceptable when everything that you have and are must be given in love? Your “total gift” would be a sham….
Contraception is wrong because “Human life is sacred.”
The reason the Evangelical system of dependence on explicit Bible verses breaks down is that the Bible is not explicit in many instances. Take 1 Corinthians 6:18 – most Bible versions translate this as “Flee immorality.” Fine. Define “immorality”! It is being actively redefined in our day, to the point where many Christians can remain firmly ensconced in their sins and yet feel no twinge of conscience when reading that verse – as the Protestant acceptance of artificial contraception demonstrates! And under the “Bible-only” system, a great deal has to be fudged – for example, the Bible nowhere actually condemns polygamy. The Old Testament speaks positively of it, and the New Testament is basically silent on the subject. Without a coherent system of thought such as the Catholic Church possesses, Christians really are adrift, fending for themselves, clinging to isolated pieces of theological driftwood floating in our modern-day sea of moral relativism….
The Catholic Church has a Theology of the Body, a Theology of Life, and a Theology of Work, just as the human body has a nervous system, a circulatory system and a respiratory system – all systems serving the same body and all interdependent. Bible-only Christians have Bible verses that teach them what they can and cannot do, like parts on a factory assembly line. Put them all together and you’ve got a theology – but it’s got no soul.
Which is why every year around Halloween, my thoughts drift back to this subject. Evangelical teaching is a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, a hand sutured onto an arm sewn onto a shoulder. Catholic teaching is organic; it is a living body of doctrine.
It is theology as God meant it to be.
On the memorial of St. Frumentius of Ethiopia
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits: Patchwork Girl by André Koehne/Wikimedia Commons