Politics vs. Salvation: Catholic priorities?
Yesterday I received a USCCB Alert text, warning me that the “HHS Contraceptive Mandate is Back—Make Your Voice Heard Now!”, followed by a handy link. On the one hand, I signed up for this and I was glad to get it. But on the other hand, I suddenly realized that the Church (in the United States, at least) is far more active in alerting people to fight politically against laws that would make us pay for other people’s contraceptives than it is in alerting people to fight against the sin of contraception in their own lives. The percentage of those who self-identify as Catholics while contracepting as a matter of routine is extremely high.
This observation raises a very important question. Is the Catholic Church today as a general rule more active in politics than she is in the moral formation of the baptized? Or let me put this another way: It is a far greater evil that we should contracept than that we should be forced to pay for contraceptives for others with our tax dollars. Yet we hear about the political issue far more often than we hear about the moral issue.
It is the “far more often” that is the scandal.
The perils of human sexuality
I admit, of course, that in the current socio-political climate we have a far greater chance of avoiding paying for sinful practices than we have of de-legalizing or at least discouraging sinful practices. But if we think that our fundamental personal morality is just fine as long as we resist the public, political effort to legalize, promote, and fund more widespread sexual sin, then (as my parents used to say) “we have another think coming”. And if the Church thinks that the crux of today’s moral challenge is to avoid having our taxes used to fund immorality, the Church is suffering under a severe spiritual delusion.
Sexual sins, of course, lie very near the core of human morality. This is because we were made by God with typically strong sexual urges precisely so we would be more likely to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28 and elsewhere), and yet in our alienation from God (wrought primarily through pride), we tend to be tempted to sexual pleasure without sexual responsibility. We elevate the pleasure we hope to enjoy through sex over the fundamental purpose of sex in the life-long fidelity of family life. This is how we are to shape ourselves and each new member of our families for loving service to each other and to God—for an increasingly selfless and marvelously fruitful human happiness, a deep and abiding happiness that far transcends the more selfish appeal of mere pleasure. We can be afraid of the demands of this happiness, of course, but that is typically a trick of perspective because of our initial littleness, or a trick of temptation which comes, as it did for Christ Himself, from the world, the flesh and the Devil.
Given our natural fecundity—in itself a stupendous blessing—we must always keep in mind the virtue of chastity. The first issue is not the different kinds of sexual temptation; the first issue is the purpose of human sexuality, which is the procreation of children for the glory of God through an act which at one and the same time fosters an increase in marital love. This is what Catholic teaching refers to as the procreative and unitive dimensions of the marital act. One of these dimensions (or purposes or ends) may not be deliberately separated from the other; still less may we abandon both dimensions. Anyone who is an honest observer of the human condition really ought to be able to see abundant proofs of this inner logic of human sexuality. It is primarily lust, but sometimes genuine hardship, that blinds us to the reality at stake.
But it is precisely in this spousal, familial and procreative context—that is, in our openness to both life and love in the marital act—that we see how different are the requirements of the virtue of chastity in the different states of life. Within the marital and familial context, sexual pleasure rooted in love is good. Outside that context, the deliberate fostering of sexual pleasure is dangerous, subversive, and degrading, and this is precisely because it is not ordered generously to the good but selfishly to an abusive pleasure. Therefore, regardless of our “feelings” it is not ordered to either life or love. We ought to grasp this through both nature and the natural law itself, of course, but as a general rule it is grace that will remove our blinders—if we will only open ourselves to grace.
Hardship and hardership
There is a certain amount of hardship involved in living chastely, in that we must deliberately deny ourselves many sexual pleasures. But sexual satisfaction without the responsibility of fecundity and marital love is a deceit which, lacking the integrity proper to the marital act, actually causes us to spiral into an ever-greater selfishness, no matter what our mere “feelings” may cause us to think. We should also recognize that this discipline—this hardship—accompanies every form of chastity, whether in the increased burdens and trials of family life or in the loneliness that may arise when spousal unity and the life of the family are either vocationally renounced or denied to us by circumstances beyond our control.
But my point is this: Owing to the power of sexual urgency, it has always been very easy to fall into the abuse of our sexuality. Moreover, in every pagan culture, that abuse is elevated in status—even to a religious or quasi-religious status—while the virtue of chastity and the beauty of marriage are both devalued and undercut. We can see this happening once again throughout the neo-pagan West, under the leadership of secularized elites who insist not only on inculcating sexual immorality in formal education but on exporting it to any other culture to which they offer material aid. At every level, then, we quickly find an erosion of the very foundations of human culture in marriage and the family, along with that abrasive insistence that always accompanies widespread cultural acceptance of sin: For those who do evil hate the light (Jn 3:20)—and always seek to train others to hate it as well.
It is just this that underscores my main point. It is not nearly enough for the bureaucratic apparatus of the Church to orchestrate political opposition to the encroachment by the State on our freedom both to live virtuously and to avoid subsidizing sin. Insofar as we live within a political community, in fact, we will always be taxed, and therefore we will always subsidize one sin or another—the self-aggrandizement of politicians and bureaucrats, disastrous policies, prodigious waste, and even unjustified war. It is nearly impossible for even a fundamentally good politics to separate itself from at least some abuses and compromises with virtue, if only through the weaknesses of human judgment.
That does not mean we should not try to foster a virtuous politics. But it does remind us to reject the myth of the modern secular state that politics is everything. Even politics depends on a virtuous citizenry, and in any case we are not to put our “trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help” (Ps 146:3).
Politics a poor second
On the contrary, your virtue and my virtue still transcend politics. If I contracept but do not pay for others to do the same, I have protected my pocketbook, but I have not learned to behave virtuously. If the Church emphasizes a politically-savvy stopping point for the spread of a particular evil, she has done something good, but she has not even begun to fulfill her mission of bringing her members ever more fully into the Kingdom of God. And precisely by not fulfilling her Divine mission, she actually becomes far less attractive to those who do not identify with her, whether sacramentally or doctrinally. She becomes something to be manipulated so that she might be mocked.
The Catholic Church in our time must concentrate first and foremost not on political action but on the growth of faith and virtue among all her members. Again, I do not object to timely political alerts, though they are another case of nothing new under the sun. But wake me up, please, when you get a text (or any other form of communication) from the bishops that reminds you that contraception is a sin, and invites you to enter more deeply into the life of Christ.
Who alone makes all things new.
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!
Posted by: philtech2465 -
Apr. 04, 2023 4:34 PM ET USA
When it comes to sexual morality, the Church has been mostly silent, which is why Catholics get divorced and remarried, and practice contraception, and why a growing number of Catholics think homosexuality, same-sex "marriage" and gender "transitions" are morally OK. At this point, defending the religious exercise rights of the relatively few faithful Catholics is nothing more than a rearguard action.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Apr. 03, 2023 6:24 PM ET USA
I personalized the USCCB message: Like all abortions, contraception is an elective choice. No one should be forced to pay for anyone else's "lifestyle choices". Contraception is not a "preventive service," just as pregnancy is not a disease. Some things that HHS calls "contraception" can actually be used for abortions. Procured abortion is homicide, plain and simple. This assumes, of course, that unborn children are "legal persons". Where the law fails the right to life, it should be "canceled".
Posted by: JimKcda -
Apr. 03, 2023 4:32 PM ET USA
While I agree with mary_conces3421 in principle, I might turn her statement around and suggest that the refusal of our Bishops and priests to preach and teach the anti-chastity, sexual evils, including artificial contraception, after VII, may have been the cause of the sexual abuse sins and crimes of our clergy. I remember AB Sheen saying something like “God gives us what we ask for” or “We get what we deserve” or something like that. The Jews asked for a King and look how that turned out!
Posted by: mary_conces3421 -
Apr. 02, 2023 7:10 AM ET USA
Well put, as usual. Unfortunately, the sex abuse scandals (manipulated by the Church’s enemies) have effectively undermined the hierarchy’s credibility to preach on sexual matters. At least opposition to taxes’ use to fund contraception indicates that there’s something wrong with it.
Posted by: CorneliusG -
Mar. 31, 2023 7:40 PM ET USA
I got the same text. At least it urged action in an orthodox Catholic direction rather than, say, urging Catholics to express disapproval of legislative initiates to protect children from gay/trans grooming. Somewhat surprising coming from the USCCB. So there's that.