Earlier today, Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, issued a pastoral letter, “The Language of Love”, which was addressed “to the Catholic families and healthcare providers of the Diocese of Lincoln”. Of course, it has gotten attention outside of the Diocese of Lincoln, in part because contraception is a hot issue, the topic of discussion and legal arguments in the Supreme Court today. And Bishop Conley’s letter, while not mentioning the ongoing battles involving the HHS mandate, focuses on the widespread belief that contraception is part of “healthcare”:
No Catholic healthcare provider, in good conscience, should engage in the practice of medicine by undermining the gift of fertility. There is no legitimate medical reason to aid in the acts of contraception or sterilization. No Catholic physician can honestly argue otherwise.
Healthcare is the art of healing. Contraception and sterilization may never be considered healthcare. Contraception and sterilization denigrate and degrade the body’s very purpose. Fertility is an ordinary function of health and human flourishing; and an extraordinary participation in God’s creative love. Contraception and sterilization stifle the natural and the supernatural processes of marriage, and cause grave harm. They treat fertility as though it were a terrible inconvenience, or even a physical defect that needs to be treated. …
Contraception is generally regarded by the medical community as the ordinary standard of care for women. The Church’s teachings are often regarded as being opposed to the health and well-being of women. But apart from the moral and spiritual dangers of contraception, there are also grave physical risks to the use of most chemical contraceptives. Current medical literature overwhelmingly confirms that contraception puts women at risk for serious health problems, which doctors should consider very carefully.
Bishop Conley’s letter, which is relatively short, draws upon Bl. John Paul II’s theology of the body, as well as on Benedict XVI’s various expositions on the nature of authentic love. He writes:
Sacrifice is the language of love. Love is spoken in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who poured out his life for us on the cross. Love is spoken in the sacrifice of the Christian life, sharing in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. And love is spoken in the sacrifice of parents, and pastors, and friends.
We live in a world short on love. Today, love is too often understood as romantic sentimentality rather than unbreakable commitment. But sentimentality is unsatisfying. Material things, and comfort, and pleasure bring only fleeting happiness. The truth is that we are all searching for real love, because we are all searching for meaning.
Love—real love—is about sacrifice, and redemption, and hope. Real love is at the heart of a rich, full life. We are made for real love. And all that we do—in our lives, our careers, and our families, especially—should be rooted in our capacity for real, difficult, unfailing love.
And, a bit later, he references John Paul II’s great encyclical, Evangelium Vitae: “Dear brothers and sisters, Blessed John Paul II reminded us that, ‘man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God.’ The sexual intimacy of marriage, the most intimate kind of human friendship, is a pathway to sharing in God’s own life. It is a pathway to the fullness of our own human life; it is a means of participating in the incredible love of God. Contraception impedes our share in God’s creative love. And thus it impedes our joy.”
In a very real sense, pornography is today what contraception was several decades ago: something once widely rejected by decent people and society at large, but now gaining a foothold as something acceptable, even normal, in a world that has cast aside its “hang-ups” and “old-fashioned” moral belief. Pornography, in the course of my lifetime, has gone from being something shameful and on the fringes of society to a fact of life; it is, increasingly, mainstream. Once the culture was effectively “contracepted”—in ways both physical/sexual and relational/spiritual—it was only a matter of time before the culture would become “pornographied”; once the marital act has been separated from marriage and reproduction, the reproduction system, as a friend wryly noted recently, becomes an entertainment system.
I doubt I need to waste time on examples. Which is why the pastoral letter, “Bought With a Price”, by Bishop Paul S. Loverde of Arlington, Virginia, is so important. The subtitle points to Bishop Loverde’s focus: “Every Man’s Duty to Protect Himself and His Family from a Pornographic Culture”. Pornography, overwhelmingly, is aimed at men, and the astounding reach of pornographic materials has, of course, made even deeper inroads via the internet. Bishop Loverde writes:
In my nearly fifty years as a priest, I have seen the evil of pornography spread like a plague throughout our culture. What was once the shameful and occasional vice of the few has become the mainstream entertainment for the many—through the Internet, cable, satellite and broadcast television, smart phones and even portable gaming and entertainment devices designed for children and teenagers. Never before have so many Americans been so tempted to view pornography. Never before have the accountability structures—to say nothing of the defenses which every society must build to defend the precious gift of her children—been so weak.
Like Bishop Conley, Bishop Loverde focuses on the nature of authentic love and the grave damage that is done to lives and souls through the rejection of that love and the embrace of sin:
The most tragic and frightening victim of the scourge of pornography is the family. Although the “intimacy” promised by this vice is illusory and the happiness sought in its practice is transitory and destructive, the damage to the human relationships so necessary for the flourishing of the family is even more shockingly real and, in many cases, permanent.
The flourishing of the family is dependent upon the growth of family members in holiness and true human love. This is a love whose primary concern is for the good of the other. It is in this experience of human love that children grow in grace and wisdom and become integrated and virtuous members of human
society. True human love does not arise from selfish desire but rather from self-giving. It is in the example of self-giving expressed by loving parents that children develop the potential to commit to intimacy with another and to intimacy with God.
When family members turn to pornography in a distorted thirst for intimacy, they turn against and in some measure reject their commitment to their family. By doing this, they commit violence against the relationships which define their own vocation.
The letter and accompanying study guide are intensive (over 75 pages long) and challenging; I highly recommend that every man read it and prayfully contemplate the bishop’s wise words. Both Bishop Conley and Bishop Loverde have written letters that are direct and firm, deeply pastoral and authentically charitable, and they—as well as all the clergy and laity who proclaim the Gospel of Life in the midst of the culture of death—deserve our thanks, gratitude, and support.