Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Some months back, I made a plea—that the Church not yield on withholding the Eucharist from divorced and remarried Catholics. I wrote briefly of my own Catholic conversion, which has left me, as a divorced and remarried woman, unable to receive. I mentioned that my husband and I hoped to be granted a decree of nullity. Now we have received word that we are approximately six weeks from the end.

At this post-Obergefell moment, and with my annulment in view—and on the anniversary of Pope Paul VI's great encyclical, Humanae Vitae—I wish to make two proposals to the Church and to my American Catholic brothers and sisters.

First, let us embrace Humanae Vitae in word and deed. Second, let us embrace a renewal of celibacy.

I do not exaggerate when I say that Humanae Vitae converted me to Catholicism.

Cradle Catholics may be scratching their heads, wondering how an encyclical about contraception from 1968 could possibly win over a hard-core Calvinist! But Humanae Vitae is more than just a dusty document infringing on people's sexual freedom and setting rules for childbearing.

It is a proto–Theology of the Body. It contains the seeds of that brimming anthropological and theological understanding of man—his teleology, his sexuality, his eschatology. Saint John Paul II took Paul VI's “genesis” and birthed it.

To espouse Humanae Vitae in word and deed means that we should get married and have children.

Yes, have children, lots of them, and raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Give some to the Lord and to the work of the Church, and train others to value life in the peculiar way of parents, to understand who they are as male and female, to desire marriage and children, to reject childishness and selfishness, to seek friendship with Christ rather than with the world, and to internalize Catholicism rather than Americanism.

It is that simple. But we live in an atomized and materialistic culture. Children get in the way of what the world tells us we deserve: luxury, me-time, fame, and a host of “goods” centered around the god of self. And so Mary Eberstadt has written, “More Pill equals less time in a family. More time in a family equals more time in church. Therefore more Pill equals less God.”

Eberstadt arrives at her conclusions by analyzing social-science data. Here, I make the same proposal from a faith angle: Get married and have many children. The cynic will call this “breeding them out.” The Christo-centric man will call it “faithfulness.”

Embracing Humanae Vitae in word and deed also means upholding what the Church has taught from the beginning regarding divorce and remarriage. This is what my husband and I have done in our private life, and why we submitted ourselves to the annulment process and to convalidating our marriage when the time comes.

The culture that now finds itself in a post-Obergefell mishmash—whereby marriage is whatever anyone wants, for as long as everyone involved thinks it's still fun for them—blossomed out of no-fault divorce. Every act of faith within this sphere, then, is an act of resistance to the SCOTUS decision and to the culture that bred it. At the heart of this resistance are mastery over concupiscence, a deeper understanding of the spousal meaning of the body, and a grasp of sacramental marriage. All of these, when espoused and lived out, have the potential to change nations and cultures.

Hans Urs von Balthasar proposed this change years ago. Transformation of the world, he wrote, will come

only through the woman who perceives and understands her role as counterpoise to and spearhead against man's increasingly history-less world, and who must do just the opposite of what current feminism does. . . . [It will] take deep moral decisions on the part of women to seize the spokes of the wheel that is rolling toward the absurd.

When Pope John Paul II calls for women to rise up and use their “feminine genius,” this is what he means. Women must stand athwart current feminism, yelling “No!” to contraception.

And “No!” to abortion. “No!” to sex outside of marriage. “No!” to men who want to “try things out” by cohabiting. “No!” to the temptation to act on same-sex attraction. “Yes!” to sacramental marriage. “Yes!” to an open and fruitful womb. “Yes!” to adoption if the womb is closed. “Yes!” to religious vocations. “Yes!” to spiritual motherhood. “Yes!” to life at home with young children, even if it means less income. “Yes!” to anything and everything that makes the woman fruitful both in and out of the home. “Yes!” to the abundant life that typifies womanhood qua womanhood rather than as “feminine machismo.”

Men and women both may say “Yes!” to a renewal of celibacy. God uses the celibate vocation to teach the married and the culture about chastity and holiness. Celibacy provides us a glimpse of the resurrected body—the eschatological body.

As Pope John Paul II writes, “A union proper to man from the ‘beginning' belongs exclusively to this world.' Marriage and procreation do not constitute man's eschatological future.” From the beginning, we have been conjugal bodies. But Christ said to the Sadducees, “When the dead rise again, there is no marrying and giving in marriage.” John Paul II stresses that human bodies will be “recovered and also renewed in the resurrection.” What it means to be male and female in the body “will be newly constituted” in that “other world,” the eschaton.

Celibate people—whether they are celibate for the Kingdom, like priests and religious, or as lay persons called by God to a life of celibacy—model for the culture and for the married what it will be like to be male and female in the eschaton. Through holiness, purity, and spiritual fecundity, they can show us what bodies and souls directed completely toward God will look like.

In a post-Obergefell culture, where ersatz “marriage” has become a means of gaining human “dignity” (actually self-esteem) and identity, the celibate life stands as a sign of contradiction. It enfleshes what the Church has taught from the beginning: Every person has dignity by virtue of being made in the image and likeness of God; and, our identity as human persons is not self-made, but was breathed in us when we were created sons and daughters of God.

The current obsession with the nature of marriage within the Church arises partly from the incoherence of our culture, which simultaneously trivializes marriage and idolizes it. On the one hand, marriage is nothing special, nothing in particular—it is whatever anyone wants it to be, and only for as long as they want it to be. And on the other hand, marriage is necessary to everyone's human dignity and identity, so that celibacy becomes the great human failure.

What the Church, distinctively, must do is value both states—marriage and celibacy— in all their uniqueness and for the separate ideals they embody. This is where the truths in Humanae Vitae play a vital role. As we marry and bear many children, we must in word and deed train our children to value the power of both marriage and celibacy, inside and outside the Church.

On this forty-seven-year anniversary of Humanae Vitae and in the wake of Obergefell, we must reflect somberly on who God is, and who we are in light of him. As a new convert, I see that the Catholic Church in America has an opportunity to be Catholic at this moment in history—down-to-the-bone Catholic. She can do so by standing immovable on two issues the culture wants her to surrender on: Humanae Vitae (and everything it stands for) and celibacy. Let the Marian Church stand up and say, “No!”

Luma Simms is the author of Gospel Amnesia. Follow her @lumasimms.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter. 

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles