Everyone knows that millions of Catholic married couples are using contraceptives irrespective of the Church’s condemnation of the practice. What is interesting about this reality is that the common methods being used place the responsibility on either the man or the woman, but not both. This means that only one of the two is actively facilitating contraception. So, for example, what if a Catholic man has a change of heart on moral grounds and would rather his wife switch from the pill to natural family planning and she refuses? According to Pope Pius XI, he would not be culpable for the sin of contraception:
“Holy Church knows well that not infrequently one of the parties is sinned against rather than sinning, when for a grave cause he or she reluctantly allows the perversion of the right order [contraception]. In such a case, there is no sin, provided that, mindful of the law of charity, he or she does not neglect to seek to dissuade and to deter the partner from sin” (Casti Connubii, 1930, #59).
In the Middle Ages confession could be an unpleasant experience; penances were severe and could last years. Priests had been taught that if a penance accorded was not in proportion to the gravity of the sin, a portion of the temporal punishment would be transferred to the priest. But around the middle of the twelfth-century priests were encouraged to develop a gentler approach to confession.
French scholar Pierre Payer, an expert on the penitential literature of the period, called it a “pastoral revolution”, where the focus of preaching and the confessional was to educate and counsel rather than admonish and punish. Confession would become, according to Payer, “…one of the most intimate of human relationships that was institutionalized in the Christian Church”.*
Another “pastoral revolution” may be taking place in the Church with the implementation of the Apostolic Exhortation AmorisLaetitia, in which Pope Francis introduces a new development in pastoral discernment:
“[Seminarians and future priests] need to truly understand this: in life not everything is black and white, white and black. No! In life shades of gray predominate. We must then teach how to discern within this gray.” (link)
One consequence of the fall of man was the corruption of marriage and the eventual institution of legal divorce. Even in Hildegard’s day (12th-century) divorce and remarriage were common in Latin Christendom. Marriages were utilitarian and pre-arranged, and consequently, loveless. They facilitated alliances between noble families in order to protect their respective fiefs or wealth. When circumstances would change and an alliance was no longer advantageous, the nobleman would discard the wife who was the basis of the pact and form another one with a different feudal lord.
One of the best weapons the Church employed to break down feudal society’s marriage customs was its insistence on consent as the basis for a valid marriage. Girls in their early teens were considered too young to grant consent and arranged marriages precluded it. Invalid marriages were a problem for the nobility because any children produced in them would be regarded as illegitimate and unable to inherit. The people of Christendom finally accepted that it was Church law, not civil law, that determined the validity of a marriage.
In July of 1968 Pope Paul VI, by issuing the encyclical HumanaeVitae, unequivocally upheld the Church’s long standing prohibition on contraception. In hindsight, we can see that its publication had created the circumstances for a divergence in birth rates between Catholics and the rest of society. This would have had a major impact on both the Church and the nation. But by means of a well-coordinated effort to discredit the encyclical, its message was disregarded. The expected divergence in birth rates turned out to be a correlation.
While it’s hard to find figures on birth rates for specific groups like Catholics, researchers from CARA have noted that the number of baptisms per 1000 Catholics in a given year is strongly correlated to the overall national birth rate which has been in decline since 1957. Continue reading “Humanae Vitae and Low Birth Rates”→
Catharism was a dualist heresy that swept through Latin Christendom during the High Middle Ages; its growing popularity alarmed Church authorities. It was called by many names (the Catholic Encyclopedia lists twenty-two) but historians prefer to refer to them collectively as Cathars (“pure ones”, or “puritans”). They believed the physical world was the creation of the evil God of the Old Testament and the spiritual world was formed by the God of the New Testament. It was just the latest version of the recurrent dualist heresies like Gnosticism and Manichaeism, but also resembles elements in contemporary secular society in disturbing ways.
This heresy’s primary requirement was the repudiation of marriage and family. Since the evil physical body was only meant to entrap spirits, marriage and procreation were forbidden. Their spirit-liberating ritual known as consolamentum, similar to the Catholic Last Rites, would be denied to children and pregnant women. Their distain for the human body was so extreme that Cathars celebrated suicide with a ritual of its own known as endura, a form of assisted suicide. Their goal was the destruction of the human race thus enabling the liberation of the spiritual world. Continue reading “Today’s Version of the Cathar Heresy”→
“Held hostage by feudal customs and threatened by the Cathar heresy, the institution of marriage at the outset of the twelfth-century in Latin Christendom was in urgent need of reform. Liberating Christian Marriage in an Age of Heresy reveals for the first time the role Hildegard played in the Church’s efforts to establish its jurisdiction over the institution and restore marriage to its Christian ideal. With little consensus on matters such as indissolubility and divorce, marital consent, contraception, clerical marriage, etc., the battle for marriage would not be easily won. Called out of her cloistered life and invested by the Church with the authority of an Old Testament prophet, abbess Hildegard, guided by mystical visions, reinforces the efforts of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the reforming popes to restore marriage to the institution God originally intended it to be.”
As I studied Hildegard’s vision of the creation and fall of man (Scivias, Book 1, Vision 2) I was surprised by the fact that she interpreted the story of Adam and Eve almost entirely in terms of sex and marriage. Scholars have suggested that this was the result of her concern about the growing heresy known as Catharism. Cathars did not believe that marriage was a valid institution and forbade procreation. Hildegard was using her vision to uphold the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. She begins with a brief description of the vision itself which is followed by 33 short chapters explaining the meaning of the symbolism with some additional commentary.
Her instruction often comes in the first person voice of God using very blunt language. Here, assuming God’s voice, she bitterly condemns the Cathars and their depraved practices:
“They are wicked murderers, killing those who join them in simplicity before they can turn back from their error; and they are wicked fornicators upon themselves, destroying their semen in an act of murder and offering it to the Devil. …By devilish illusion, they pretend to have sanctity. …By his arts he shows them things he pretends are good and holy, and thus deludes them. …And after you pour out your lust in the poisonous seed of fornication, you pretend to pray and falsely assume an air of sanctity” (Bk 2, Vis. 7, Chap. 22).
Notice that here Hildegard refers to their practice of contraception as an “act of murder”. Her instruction is unequivocally orthodox and covers all aspects of marriage: divorce and indissolubility, consent, consanguinity (incest), etc. There was clearly enough material for a short study of her teaching on marriage presented in the historical context in which her first major work, Scivias (an abbreviation of Scito vias Domini, “Know the Ways of God”) appeared.
My book clearly demonstrates that the hand of God was with the Gregorian reformers in the 12th century, particularly with respect to the institution of Christian marriage. Abbess Hildegard was called out of her cloistered life at nearly fifty years old to assist that movement in a prophetic role. This was officially acknowledged by multiple popes who not only recognized the inspired nature of Scivias, but authorized her to conduct preaching tours on the Church’s behalf. The instruction of this new Doctor of the Universal Church on sex and marriage is now on record, a time when, for the Roman Catholic Church, the subjects have taken center stage.
Sociologically speaking, little comparison can be made between the form of concubinage that was popular in the Middle Ages and today’s marital alternative known as cohabitation. The medieval pastime endured for centuries and was deeply rooted in feudal society’s pagan history. It generally took the form of a nobleman, unmarried or married, keeping a woman of lower rank or from the peasantry in his home to provide sexual favors. Unsurprisingly, medieval concubines produced many illegitimate children, with many of the bastard daughters growing up to become concubines themselves.
The concern for maintaining a family’s social status meant that concubinage would rarely lead to marriage. In most cases of modern cohabitation, however, there is an intention on the part of the couple to eventually get married, giving the relationship some sense of permanence. Recent statistics demonstrate, however, that a majority of cohabitating couples eventually break up, including couples that eventually do get married. One well known fact about remarried people is that their second marriage is more likely to end in divorce, the third even more, etc. The same goes for cohabitating couples. Advocating cohabitation is giving dangerous and costly advice. Continue reading “Cohabitation, Concubinage, and the Council of Trent”→
Marriage as we know it today originated in the twelfth-century. It was the result of the efforts of the Gregorian reform movement to wrestle full jurisdiction over marriage from the pagan-influenced customs of the feudal nobility. The latter treated marriage as means of forming strategic alliances with other families, or as a way of keeping wealth within an extended family. Arranged marriages precluded consent which often meant that it precluded love. They were often arranged before the child (usually the daughter) had even reached adolescence.
Church authorities used a variety of strategies to accomplish its goals, one of which was that fact that within Latin Christendom it was the Church that determined whether a particular marriage was valid or not. People wanted their marriage to be valid; it determined the legitimacy of their children and their ability to inherit. The Church knew this. But its problem was that it did not possess a uniform definition of what constituted a valid marriage. Continue reading “The Validity of a Marriage is Determined by Proper Consent”→
St. Hildegard wrote that in a period of time that precedes the Antichrist the Catholic Church will be punished for many sins, noting three in particular: fornication, rapine (theft or plunder), and murder (Scivias Book III, Vision 11, Chapter 13). The case for the first two as being present today isn’t difficult to make: the clerical sex abuse of children is probably the worst sexual scandal in Church history, and the well-documented troubles of the Institute for the Works of Religion (the Vatican Bank) should be a cause of embarrassment and anger for all Catholics (see Gerald Posner’s recent book, God’s Bankers). But what about homicide?
The murder accusation could be made for a number of reasons, like supporting an unjust war or the uncovering of murderous intrigues within the higher levels of the hierarchy. The latter likely only occurs in mystery novels and the former isn’t very conceivable; on the question of war the Church seems to be moving in the direction of pacifism.
“This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”
There was a time when St. Hildegard would have probably agreed with these paradoxical but generally true shortcomings of the Holy Roman Empire. As an adult Hildegard had come to know a succession of Emperors, since they were in reality no more than Kings of Germany and she was as famous a German as they were. She especially detested Emperor Frederick Barbarossa for his determination to usurp the authority of the pope in ecclesiastical appointments. Hildegard received a gracious letter from the Emperor, in which he referred to her as “holy lady”, and “beloved lady”, requesting her prayers as a means of obtaining grace. Not uncharacteristically, she responds by fearlessly assuming her role as a prophet, of the Old Testament type, delivering threats in the first-person voice of God (very unusual for a woman in medieval times):
“He who Is says: By My own power I do away with the obstinacy and rebellion of those who scorn me. Woe, O woe to the evil of those wicked ones who spurn me. Hear this O king, if you wish to live. Otherwise my sword will pierce you” (Baird, Joseph L. The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Letter #44, p.78).
She follows up with another letter in which explicitly insults the King (a guy who could make her life very difficult):
“…[I]n a mystic vision I see you like a little boy or some madman living before Living Eyes. Yet you still have time for ruling over worldly matters. Beware, therefore, that the almighty King does not lay you low because of the blindness of your eyes, which fail to see correctly how to hold the rod of proper governance in your hand. See to it that you do not act in such a way that you lose the grace of God” (Letter #45, p.78).