A Civilization of Love: Some Notes on John Paul II’s Letter to Families

The United Nations declared 1994 to be the Year of the Family, and that brings to mind a quip by Cardinal Newman when an avowed atheist was elected to Parliament. Asked if it would not be a scandal for such a person to take the oath of office, thereby evoking the name of God, Newman replied that it really made no difference, since whenever the word “God” was used in that assembly, he had no idea of what the speaker had in mind; certainly not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who became incarnate.

And so it is with the word “family,” which today is eagerly extended to accommodate all forms of what H.L. Mencken called non-Euclidean sex. A classic totalitarian principle is at work here: to engineer social reality you must first engineer the language. It is one of the evangelical tasks of the Church to restore to such words their original meaning. In the case of the family, the task is especially urgent. Pope John Paul II has put it at the very center of his pontificate.

The pope, in fact, has not been so fervent about any issue since the collapse of the Soviet Union. His crusade on behalf of the family is another striking example of the Church today fighting for a moral position that was self-evident to most people, even non-believers, just a generation ago. In Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, the novel’s hero is the only one who notices the vines breaking through all the architecture. That is currently the situation with orthodox Jews and Christians regarding marriage and the family.

The Church’s cultured despisers have always maintained that its teachings on sex and marriage are based on a priori religious grounds which do not take into account the changing times. According to this view, we are all victims of sexual repression by male celibates from the Middle Ages. Bertrand Russell put the case succinctly in a little book called Marriage and Morals: ” . . . the Christian view of marriage and sexual morality is an irrational system of taboo created by medieval superstition. . . . Christian ethics, throughout its whole history, has been a force tending toward mental disorders and unwholesome views of life.”

But such arguments are usually rationalizations; Russell’s conduct in this area was squalid. The English novelist Aldous Huxley admitted in the late thirties that one of the reasons intellectuals of his generation had embraced modernism was that it gave them a license for unlimited sex. And it’s still true today: heresies and heterodoxies almost always begin below the belt.

In any case, Russell could not have been more wrong. Since the great encyclical of Leo XIII on Christian marriage, issued in 1880, one of the Church’s main arguments for monogamous, indissoluble marriage, has not been “theological” at all; it has rather been historical and sociological. The argument is simple: the norms for marriage established by Jesus Christ are for society’s own good, and any society that prescinds from them is simply canceling its own future.


To see the point the Church is making, we need only to look at history. The fall of classical civilization was due to many factors, but one of the principle ones was certainly the breakdown of the family. Christopher Dawson’s analysis of the decline of classical Greece and Rome could be applied to the upper East Side of Manhattan today, although “slaves and prostitutes” have given way to bimbos and starter marriages:

Conditions of life both in the Greek city state and in the Roman Empire favored the man without a family who could devote his whole energies to the duties and pleasures of public life. Late marriages and small families became the rule, and men satisfied their sexual instincts by homosexuality or by relations with slaves and prostitutes. This aversion to marriage and the deliberate restriction of family by the practice of infanticide and abortion was undoubtedly the main cause of the decline of ancient Greece, as Polybius pointed out in the second century B.C.

Dawson argues that the West owes its survival to the fact that Christ rescued marriage from its ancient corruptions and put it on an entirely new basis. The Church

insisted for the first time on the mutual and bilateral character of sexual obligations. The husband belonged to the wife as exclusively as the wife belonged to the husband. . . . The resultant type of monogamous and indissoluble marriage has been the foundation of European society and conditioned the whole development of our civilization.

As for cultures outside the Christian fold, those which came closest to the Christian ideal of the family, such as classical China with its Confucian ethic, are the ones that have survived the longest.


In his Letter to Families, Pope John Paul II makes precisely the same “sociological” argument. The document is one of the most important of his pontificate. It is a wake-up call to the anti-birth democracies in the West. The life of society passes through the family, the pope warns us, and the West is in danger of committing suicide, and taking the rest of the world down with it, if it does not relent in its assault against marriage and children.

Anyone familiar with the pope’s writings knows that he is a very deep reader of the first three chapters of Genesis. Like St. Augustine, he keeps drawing lessons from that inspired, archaic text which make the most cutting-edge Sartrean existentialism seem mildly quaint. It is not surprising, then, that the Letter begins with a meditation on the biblical creation account. In Genesis, we see that the family was not only ordained by God, but that its existence precedes that of any other institution, including nations and states. Hence, the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching: a primary reason for the existence of the state is to insure the autonomy and well-being of the family.

The two creation accounts in Genesis I and II affirm separately what the Church has always taught are the primary purposes of marriage. In Genesis I, we read: “Then God blessed them and said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.’ ” Marriage, then, is God’s chosen vehicle for the propagation of the human race; it is a privilege to be co-creators with God of new human life. As Janet Smith has eloquently pointed out, the original Latin of the first sentence of Humanae vitae talks about the munus gravissimum of transmitting life; this is usually translated as “grave duty,” which totally misses the tone of the original. “Privileged office” would be more like it.

But young couples today have a balance sheet mentality when it comes to planning a family. On the asset side are the house, the cars, and nice vacations; on the liability side, the mortgage and children. The wisdom of previous generations, who knew that the more generous to God parents are with respect to children, the more generous He will be to them (such generosity being manifested precisely in those extra children), has become lost in the channels.

The second chapter of Genesis retells the creation account in a manner which dovetails with, and no doubt partly inspired, the pope’s own personalist philosophy. God looks at Adam and says, “It is not good for man to be alone. . . .” And so he forms Eve, whose appearance naturally delights Adam: “This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.. .. Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cling to his wife; and they shall be two in one flesh.” Thus, the second end of marriage: human nature is such that man fully discovers his true self only in a sincere giving of himself — and for most of the laity, this means marriage. Your spouse is your vocation, your path to sanctity.

It is in the context of this idea of “gift of self” that Pope John Paul reiterates the Church’s teaching about birth control. It is commonly said that this pope has merely “reaffirmed” Humanae vitae; but he has done much more than that. He has moved away from the natural law argument against contraception (which is still perfectly valid) and reformulated the Church’s teaching in terms of his own personalist philosophy. And he correctly points out that a personalist presentation of the subject to young couples is persuasive. My wife and I can vouch for this since we teach pre-Cana sessions for engaged Catholic couples in Manhattan — a very tough market for Humanae vitae.


The personalist argument against contraception goes like this: Marriage is the ultimate gift of self to another; it is unconditional and therefore irrevocable. When you use contraception, you are, in effect, saying to your spouse: “In this, the most intimate act of our marriage, I am going to give myself to you, but only up to a point.” Or, conversely, you are saying: “I want you in this act to make a total gift of yourself to me, except for that part of you which most deeply defines you as a sexual being, your fecundity.” The body, the pope writes, has its own deep language, and when we add chemicals or latex to the conjugal act, when we separate the unitive and procreative aspects of sex, our bodies are telling a lie. As a result, a void can open up in a couple’s sex life — one, it should be added, that is usually first noticed by the wife.

The pope’s prognosis is correct. In fact, a case could be made that half of the divorces and separations which occur today can be attributed to the fact that married couples in the depths of their being do not enjoy contraceptive sex. They are bored by it, and they seldom find that it gets better as the years go by. Maggie Gallagher in The Enemies of Eros states the obvious reason: sex which makes babies is sexier sex. And if a couple does have a good reason for spacing their children, there is Natural Family Planning, which not only works, but makes for authentic, and therefore satisfying, conjugal relations.

NFP is one of the best kept secrets in the Catholic Church. And this is a tragedy, because couples who use NFP almost universally report that it is a great boon to their marriage. NFP is not “Catholic birth control.” Nor is it “rhythm,” which was the only non-contraceptive method available when Paul VI wrote Humanae vitae. It is a method whereby both partners exercise restraint during the wife’s fertile period, which is determined by a few simple symptoms. As the pope points out, there is a fundamental, anthropological difference between contraceptive and non-contraceptive sex, between sex which is anti-procreative and sex which is non-procreative. Two statistics tell the whole story: the divorce rate among couples who use NFP is under three percent, while the divorce rate among couples who use contraceptions is well over 50 percent.


Abstinence, it has been said, is a great aphrodisiac; there is nothing like periodic restraint to keep a married couple’s sex life interesting. NFP is natural, it’s about as effective as the pill (99 percent), and there are no side-effects. (By contrast, the more effective an artificial contraceptive is, the more potential health problems there are for the wife.) For all these reasons, there are even non-Catholic couples who use NFP and can’t understand why more couples aren’t in on it. One reason is that nobody knows about it. There has been a failure of nerve among parties in the Church who do not understand a simple principle taught by Aquinas: God is only offended by those acts which are not for man’s own good. Artificial contraception is not a free lunch; it is an act of self-mutilation, which is therefore displeasing to God.

It has been remarked that Humanae vitae would have been greeted rapturously in 1968 if Paul VI had not insisted that couples make demands on themselves — something a “bourgeois” Christianity cannot tolerate. But it is now clear that those demands are slight compared with their reward. The pill is a corrosive eating away at the Church in this country. The contraceptive mentality, moreover, paved the way for the abortion mills, just as Paul VI predicted. When Mother Teresa said at that now famous prayer breakfast in Washington that she would not give children for adoption to couples who had used contraception, she was making a very profound point.


Once children do arrive, a modern Catholic couple has its work cut out for it. The pope in his Letter reminds us of an important teaching of the Second Vatican Council: parents are the fundamental educators of their children, especially in the area of faith and morals. But how do parents go about raising their children in a radically secularized society? There are two extremes to be avoided.

In The Restoration of Christian Culture, John Senior talks about the unfortunate tendency that conservative Catholic parents have toward Jansenism. Jansenism was a 17th-century heresy that was essentially a Catholic variant of Calvinism; it emphasized God’s justice over His mercy and promoted a deeply suspicious attitude toward wide areas of human endeavor, especially in the arts. Threats of hell-fire, a constant harping on sin, the attempt to micro-manage a child’s life so that contact with the outside world is severely limited — all these are counterproductive. A wise master of the spiritual life made a remark that parents ought to ponder: it is better to be innocent than suspicious. Otherwise, you may be preparing your children for the ranks of ex-Catholics once they become adults.

If parents are to be “innocent,” however, it has to be an alert innocence. They must avoid the other extreme, which is far more common, of not being concerned at all about what their children are exposed to, especially in the schools. I am referring to sex education programs that make a point of not mentioning conjugal love outside of a menu of deviant practices. I am also referring to the pedagogical fads which have gripped the education establishment of this country: affective education, values clarification, and so forth. They often reach the children through drug prevention programs like Quest or Project Charlie. Such programs teach an approach to morality at complete variance with the Catholic understanding of conscience, most recently set forth in Veritatis splendor.

The people who run these programs usually view parents as the enemy, so you will often find that the school tells you little or nothing about what is going on. But if your seven-year old is suddenly talking all the time about his feelings, take note: he is probably being taught, through the methods of non-directive group psychotherapy, not only that feeling good about himself is the first object of life, but also that in questions about morality, feelings — and not objective truth mediated through the will and the intellect — are what count.

The pope seems to know more about what is going on in American schools than do most parents. In September, 1993, he told the bishops of New England: “The young people of America, indeed of the whole Western world, are often victims of educational theories which propose that they ‘create’ their own values, and that ‘feeling good about themselves’ is a primary guiding principle; these young people are asking to be led out of this moral confusion.”


Lionel Trilling once made the modest proposal that the liberal arts curriculum be retired for a generation. I have an even more modest one: the word “feelings” ought to be banished from our schools. In the old days, the ideal set before youth was the stiff upper lip; now it’s the trembling lower one. Feelings are important, but they are not the final court of appeal.

Catholic parents are not necessarily going to avoid these problems by sending their children to a Catholic school. Nor can they always depend on a Catholic school to provide sound doctrinal formation. Quite the contrary. In my neighborhood, there are two Catholic schools for boys. One postpones Confession until two years after first Communion so as not to trouble tender minds with the notion of sin. It also teaches sexual morality by telling the students: Here is what the Vatican (notice, not the Church or the Magisterium) says, but here are what American opinion polls say. In the other school, the religion teacher tells ninth graders that they do not have to believe in purgatory. When a student challenged him on this, he replied, “Name one post-Vatican II document that mentions purgatory.” (It so happens there is one: Paul VI’s apostolic constitution on indulgences, Indulgentiarum doctrina.) Meanwhile, the local archdiocese-sponsored CCD program turns out children who enter adolescence dimly aware (at best) of the divinity of Christ.

Such temporizing with the truth goes a long way to explain the problems of the Catholic Church in this country. Why should anyone take seriously an institution that appears to have so little self-respect?

My wife and I send our boys to a Protestant school, where we can at least be certain that they will not be taught heresy. We are also involved in an orthodox catechism program in which lay volunteers teach small classes of children in living rooms and kitchens. The program is a kind of guerrilla movement. It is the future that works — at least until the CCD establishment gets its house in order. The pope himself has said that the laity must get involved in teaching catechism — and that includes the fathers.

But it is in the home that children get their real Christian formation. The pope refers to the family as a “domestic Church.” In the home, what parents do is far more important than what they say. Children are very quick to detect what is important in the lives of their parents. If a child never sees his parents pray outside of Mass (and the Letter puts a great emphasis on prayer), or read a spiritual book, or even talk about the faith, the best CCD program in the world will be for naught. We American Catholics have developed very Protestant habits in this regard; even in the privacy of our homes, we tend not to be demonstrative about the faith. Religion, it must seem to many children, is something that adults secretly carry around inside their heads.

In 1832, a young Protestant minister named Ralph Waldo Emerson announced to his congregation in Boston that he would henceforth refuse to celebrate the Lord’s Supper unless the bread and wine were removed. One historian has called this a major step toward the “vaporization” of religion in American life. Catholics have not been immune. But our faith is incarnational — it is rooted in the physical — and it so happens that children love this side of Catholicism: the candles, rosary beads, Holy Water, incense, flowers, and music. Parents should also treat religion as something very positive and even fun. At dinner in our house, we read a brief life of the saint whose feast day it is, and have ice cream when it is a major saint. In the debate over whether the saint rates the ice cream (Teresa of Avila was the latest), children can pick up a great deal of doctrine and church history.


Near the end of his Letter, the pope talks about “the apostolate of Catholic families to one another.” This is important. Couples with genuine religious values feel isolated; they need to talk with other couples who share these values, and their children need to meet. At the same time, Catholic couples must avoid a fortress mentality; they are meant, after all, to be a leaven in the world at large.

The future, says the pope, depends on what we do in our families. And it will require heroism. Three generations ago, Charles Peguy predicted that by the end of the 20th century, the true saints would be the parents of Christian families. He may prove correct. In this pope, anyway, they have a great cheerleader. No one knows more about overcoming difficult obstacles than John Paul II. In the Letter, he uses the three-word exhortation with which he began his pontificate, one that occurs 366 times in the Bible, once for every day of the year, including leap year: “Be not afraid. . . . God’s strength is always far more powerful than your difficulties!” Although the family is under siege, Catholic couples who put their faith in God are not going to lose the battles that count.


George Sim Johnston is the author of "Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution" (Our Sunday Visitor).

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