“Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon . . .
terrible as an army with banners?”
—Song of Songs 6:10
“Si direbbe che persino la luna si è affrettata stasera—osservatelo in alto—a guardare a questo spettacolo.”
(“One might almost think that the moon—just look at him up there—hurried up tonight to see this spectacle.”) These were words that Pope John XXIII extemporaneously addressed to the crowd gathered in Piazza San Pietro on the moonlit evening of October 11, 1962, the opening day of the Second Vatican Council. The blessed pontiff spoke warmly of his expectation that the council would conclude “prima di Natale,” which being interpreted is “before Christmas.” On this point at least, “Good Pope John” was not a prophet. But how could he have thought otherwise? Everything had been meticulously prepared; the documents were all ready, expounding the Faith and refuting modern errors with vigor and copious footnotes. Well, no, as the saying goes, “the Rhine flowed into the Tiber,” and by Christmas the carefully worded schemata were practically all gone (except the “easy” one on liturgy: another less-than-prophetic but, in this case, collegial, not papal, surmise), and the council’s work indefinitely to-be-continued.
January 25 of this year marked the 50th anniversary of the surprise announcement of Pope John XXIII that he intended to convoke a general council. From 1959 to 1962, the soon-to-be-jettisoned constitutions and decrees that would have been discussed were composed by preparatory committees of eminent Roman theologians. Among these is one document that is remarkable for its keen prescience and consequent pastoral anxiety. It never even made it to the floor of the council. Its full title was Schema Constitutionis Dogmaticae de Castitate, Matrimonio, Familia, Virginitate. Yes, there was a separate dogmatic constitution on chastity (marital, familial, and virginal) and every word of it now reads like a prophecy—not a Delphic utterance, but as clear-sighted as Daniel. Reading the rejected schema, one cannot help but be struck by the sharp focus and clarity whereby chastity and all that opposes it in the modern world were confronted. Nor can one deny—without questioning the value of the many other matters treated by the council—that in the face of all that has come to pass in the meantime this precision and firmness would have been the greatest thing the council might have offered to the world.
Practically every moral threat in the realm of human sexuality is addressed. It deals with homosexuality: “It is most evil to hold that the most filthy affections for persons of the same sex are in fact a privilege of a higher level of culture.” It deals with surgical sex changes: “Utterly wicked are those attempts to change one’s proper sex when it can be sufficiently determined.” Genetic manipulation: “In no case can a right be given . . . to introduce into the human body procreative cells of another species, or the inverse, or to unite human cells from either sex in a laboratory . . . even if only the progress of science be intended.” Sex education: “[T]hat kind of instruction is to reprobated which is in the presence of boys and girls together.” Feminism:
The Synod reproves that evil form of emancipation by which the proper nature, function, and role of a woman are defiled, be she daughter, or wife, or mother, on account of the introduction of a false opinion of her equality with man . . . and moved by a false exaltation of freedom.
Immoral politicians: “The Synod most severely condemns those who directly assist or formally cooperate in establishing unjust laws regarding marriage and the family.” The intrusion of civil government in education: “The Sacred Synod condemns as well all theories by which in whatsoever way the rights of the church and of the family regarding the education of children are denied or whereby the primary right in this matter is attributed to civil authority.” The impeding of procreation by artificial means and the discouraging of fruitful families:
The Sacred Synod while it most insistently exhorts all that each one should according to his ability effectively assist families bearing a large number of children, at the same time severely reproves the recommending or spreading of immoral means of contraception for the limiting of children.
The objective origin and nature of marriage itself:
In the first place this Holy Synod takes up the duty to condemn all the radical errors of those who maintain that marriage in its order and establishment is a merely social phenomenon in continual evolution without any natural or supernatural weight, and that it does not come from God, nor is it subject to the Church.
The prohibition of civil dissolution of marriage: “Married persons are gravely forbidden from seeking a civil divorce as though it were properly a dissolution, as if a bond valid before God could be dissolved by civil authority.” Legal sanctions against adultery: “It is erroneous to assert that the civil authority in no case enjoys the power of punishing both men and women adulterers.” Contraception: “All means and techniques whereby in the use of marriage the procreation of offspring is impeded by human industry must be held to be intrinsically and gravely evil.” Procured abortion: “It is illicit after the accomplishment of the conjugal act to interrupt the process of conception whatever stage it has reached, or to cause the direct destruction of the fetus not yet born, by which action they sin gravely against the commandment of God.” Unnatural relations: “The chaste fidelity of spouses demands that in the mutual rendering of the marriage debt nothing should be done which is against the law of God, even if this imposes real acts of heroism.” And finally, the mass media of entertainment:
With supreme aversion this Sacred Synod acknowledges how many and how great are the detestable traps set today against chastity . . . even though they are offered under the pretext of play, recreation, art, and information whereby souls are every moment and in every place, even at home, incited to evil, nay rather dragged to it.
These are only a selection of quotations. There was much more. The language is strong, precise, and formal, and most evidently not devoid of that note of indignation which commonly characterized the magisterial reproofs of days gone by.
What the council did finally say about marriage is to be found a chapter of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The tone of this document, in contrast to the original, is hortatory rather than definitive, using personalistic descriptive affirmation rather than essentialistic formal definition and condemnation. In so doing, it clearly decries abortion and divorce, and mildly opposes contraception, but only refers in passing to the objective order of nature, while preferring to emphasize the experiential and contextual aspects of conjugal morality. Given that the two documents do not contradict each other, what is the key to understanding the difference of outlook and—if I may deal in mere, alas, futuribilia—of outcome? I was puzzling over this, until I came across some prohibitions in the “condition contrary to fact” schema that really struck me for their amazing foresight, and which regarded, not the various moral monstrosities condemned above, but rather opinions held by pious Catholics. Here is an error, but a telling one: “The Sacred Synod reproves also the opinion of those who assert that the use of marriage is a specific means of attaining that perfection whereby truly and properly Man is the image of God and of the Most Holy Trinity.”
But isn’t this practically what many today teach? That the marriage act itself, and not the married state or the bond of sacramental marriage, is a direct sign of the end of human existence: ecstatic union with God? Do we not hear that the Song of Songs is not “just” a mystical allegory, but rather a description of how to get union with God by means of sex, albeit marital and chaste? Are not marital relations sometimes referred to by preachers as the supreme and privileged signs of God’s love? Isn’t this so much the case now that it almost sounds unchristian to assert otherwise? Haven’t the dour strictures of Saint Augustine and Saint Alphonsus been surpassed?
Then I came across another passage just as telling: “The opinion is false and erroneous which holds that a marriage may be declared invalid or be dissolved on account of lack of love alone.”
I am sure that such a lack would, if attested to before a diocesan tribunal in the United States today, almost infallibly obtain just such a (fallible) declaration of nullity. The reader is asking: “You mean to tell me that love is not a necessary condition for the validity of a marriage?”
Now I would be the last to deny that there may be some individual cases in which these two prohibited opinions could be taken as true, but their condemnation here is aiming at the common good, not at individual exceptions, which can be dealt with individually. For example, the first proposition was true in a sense before Original Sin, and the second could be true if lack of love meant deceitful malice. But there was a Fall, and there is such a thing as a minimum requirement for a valid marriage that has nothing to do with . . . romance.
There! I found it. Here is the problem within the fold, which has practically furnished the enemies of sound morality with a weapon to turn against us: the romanticization of marriage and procreation. This is the vulgar version of the personalist approach to sex, which has its undoubtedly orthodox incarnations, but which is unable to take up arms against the enemy it is so eager to convince of the deeply fulfilling, richly complex experience of marital love. The enemy is at the gate, and instead of aiming at him from the safety of your turrets and routing him, you attempt to show him what a lovely, serene, and productive city he is about to destroy. In order to do this you must let him inside the gate. If he is clever, he will ask you to let his companions in also, and so they occupy the city without a fight.
The teaching of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World on marriage and the family is sublime and true, but, in view of the evils in the modern world and the undoubted “signs of the times” evident in the moral state of our society, it hardly met the challenge. The enemies of Christian morality are relentless and cruel and brook no resistance, and we are trying our best to reassure them that we are not mean, or uptight, or hateful; that we have a “positive message”; that it is all so beautiful, if they only knew. It is as though Lot should have passed out happy-face buttons to the men beating down his door, or Joseph should have tried to sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with Potiphar’s wife. The effect of this is that our opponents do not change a bit, but rather those on our own side begin to view the robust expression of our teachings with suspicion. Let’s be honest: Were we not just a bit troubled by the unapologetic tone of at least some of the affirmations given from the original schema on chastity, marriage, family, and virginity? And how many Christians were and are and surely will be very quiet about their reservations regarding so-called same-sex marriage, lest they sound like they do not respect the attachment and warm feelings and needs of such couples?
What is at the root of this? We still believe that the acts prohibited in the original schema are wrong, but we are ill at ease when these acts are reprobated in a certain manner. This is because we have romanticized sexuality. Here are the words of a dissenting voice at the council when the new schema on marriage, the one that was ultimately approved by the council, was being proposed in place of the original. Archbishop Djajasepoetra of Jakarta in Indonesia complained—in Latin—at the council’s third session in 1964:
The schema is too Occidental . . . You in the West find it quite natural for those in love to marry. But you are the exceptions if humanity as a whole is considered. Our people love one another because they are married, which is not quite the same thing. We differ from Westerners in that our marriages are contracted not out of love but by the will of the parents or tribe. We marry to continue the race.
The romanticization of sexual love in marriage has led to the subordination of its objective cosmological role in the procreation of the human race to human desire and personal need. “Our people love one another because they are married.” This is a love of the common good of the family, or the tribe, or the nation, or of the whole human race. On this view marriage is as much a matter of the common, public good as warfare, or capital punishment, or a stable means of exchange. Of this perspective we have great need, and there are signs that it is being gradually recovered, if not with the rotund reprobations of the preconciliar age (these are now reserved only for certain offenses judged to be worthy of condemnation by the media), at least with the clear, essentialist thinking that looks unflinchingly and unromantically at the nature of things.
Just this past December the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an instruction on certain bioethical issues, among which was found the resolution of the question of the “prenatal adoption” into the womb of frozen embryos that would otherwise never be carried, the so-called “snowflake babies.” Very much to the dismay of some (but admittedly not all) personalist moralists, the Holy See came down decidedly against this apparently merciful “saving” of a fertilized ovum, a human life. Why? Because not even the praiseworthy intention of saving a single life can justify an unnatural means of procreation outside of the marriage act. The document contains this amazing statement: “All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved” (emphasis original). Analogously, the Holy See has also resolutely opposed the adoption of children already born by same-sex couples, and Catholic adoption agencies have ended their services in places like the United Kingdom where the state will not allow them to refuse to place children with such couples. The good pro-life Christian may not see the analogy, but both are attempts to remedy an injustice or misfortune by immoral means. In short, a romanticizing ethic absolutizes personal human desire or need; the ancient cosmological ethic accepts the limitations of human life and does the best it can in order to serve the common good.
The moon that looked down on the spectacle of the council is, after all, in ancient and medieval cosmology the immediate cause of the bodily dispositions needed for procreation. Omnis motus geniturae fit a luna: “Every movement of the generative faculty is from the moon,” said Albert the Great. The lunar connection was inferred from women’s monthly cycle. Just this last Epiphany, in speaking of the star of Bethlehem, the star of the greatest of procreations, Pope Benedict made this observation about the ancient, cosmological Weltanschauung: “There is a special concept of the cosmos in Christianity which found its loftiest expression in medieval philosophy and theology.” May the lunar star pointed out by Pope John at the opening of the council be at last a genuine prophecy and sign of a return to the order of things, the visible cosmos of the Creator, of which we poor men born of woman are but a part, albeit the noblest. And then, perhaps, men will love their wives because they are married to them, and that will be something for the moon—in our hemisphere at least—to hurry up and see.
This article first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.