How Catholic parents can reform the church

Wedding portrait of Emilia and Karol Wojtyla. Public Domain, via Wikimedia

It’s been a tough summer for Catholics this year, and I would not be surprised if by now you’re tired of hearing and reading about church scandals, church politics, and maybe even church in general. As we wait for our bishops, cardinals, and the Pope to shed light on how they will address these problems and “clean house”, we lay people can feel rather helpless. Especially as we watch our beloved Church get attacked from the outside and ripped apart from within.

But I have news for you… well not quite news, but an important reminder: as parents, we can reform the church by the way we raise our children.  

This is so important. The scandalous and tragic events that are rocking the church should impel us to take ever more seriously our vocation as parents to raise holy men and women devoted to God. Families are the seedbed of vocations; from our homes come the future priests, nuns, and leaders of the church. Holy families make a holy church.

The other scandal: ignoring Humanae Vitae

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the 50th anniversary (July 25, 2018) of Humanae Vitae came shortly before the revelations of McCarrick’s scandalous behavior and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s report.  Fifty years of disregarding and watering down the Church’s teachings on human sexuality have, as Pope Paul VI predicted, eroded society’s moral sense, even among practicing Catholics.  

Somehow, too many Catholics have bought into the secular lie that sexual sins are not really sins at all because they’re private and therefore don’t affect other people. But they do. All sins hurt the body of Christ, but especially sexual sins, because they are so damaging physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Sexual sins not only debase and demoralize individuals, they also ruin couples and therefore families, which are the keystone of society.

Thus, pre-marital sex and the use of contraceptives, which the Catholic Church has always considered to be mortal sins, are today considered the norm. Pornography runs rampant along with sexual abuse, homosexuality, marital infidelity, and family breakdowns.  Millions of babies have been aborted since Roe vs. Wade. And now we learn that leaders in the Church have been covering up sexual abuse of minors and seminarians for decades. If Catholics had only embraced Humanae Vitae instead of ignoring or dissenting from it, the church (and society at large) might not be in the deplorable mess it’s in right now.

Where do seminarians and priests come from? Not straight from heaven. They come from families, which today live in a conscience-deadened society. We often think of the church as having an effect on society, but society also has an effect on the church. For the church is both divine and human, and therefore subject to the weaknesses and imperfections of human nature. So when seminarians and priests come, by and large, from a sickened and licentious society, should it really be so shocking (albeit scandalous and disturbing) that a few or maybe more of them commit sexual sins?

The church needs families who are radically pursuing holiness, families who can “purify the air” around them by their witness to love and joy. Families can be the wellspring of a new evangelization. They can bring forth a new generation dedicated to Christ and His teachings who will, with the grace of God, transform society. But the radical holiness of a family begins with the love between husband and wife, a love that is unconditional and faithful, unitive and procreative. A love that embraces the tenets of Humanae Vitae.

Here are the main points of Humanae Vitae in a nutshell:

Married love is total, faithful, and fecund (life-giving). “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.” (HV 9)

The exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.  Thus, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. (HV 10)

Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. (HV 11)

An act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. … But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. (HV 13)

The direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.  Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means. (HV 14)

If … there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles [described in Humanae Vitae]… (HV 16)

Being open to life is not easy. In fact, it can be so hard and scary that most people think that not contracepting is irresponsible and foolish. But when a couple allows the Lord to permeate every facet of their lives, including what happens in the bedroom, and trustingly welcomes every child God gives them, God blesses their marriage and family immensely. And He uses their families to sanctify the world around them.

Saints are the proof

Let’s look at some of the great saints who have had a substantial impact on the life of the Church: St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, was the youngest of 13 children. St. Catherine of Siena, third Order Dominican who convinced Pope Gregory IX to leave Avignon for Rome, was the youngest of 25 children. St. Charles Borromeo, who played a key role in the Counter Reformation, was the third of six children.  St. Louis de Montfort, the great Marian saint, was one of 18; 11 of his siblings had died in infancy. St. Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church, was the oldest of six. St. Bernadette of Lourdes was the eldest of nine. St. Faustina Kowalska  was the third of ten children. St. Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, was the youngest of nine children. The list of saints born to parents who were open to life goes on and on. (And yes, even in the Middle Ages there were ways of contracepting.) 

Of course, this is not to say that to produce a saint, one must have a large family. After all, it is God who makes saints, not parents or the saints themselves. But God so loves the generosity and steadfast faith of those parents who are open to life that He often blesses them with children who would change the world and bring them eternal joy. In any case, it is not the number of children that matters, but the openness to God’s will in our lives and the faithfulness with which we live out His commands as taught to us through the Church.

My favorite example is St. Pope John Paul II , who was one of four. It is interesting to see the spacing of the siblings in his family: John Paul II (born Karol Wojtyla) had an older sister who died before he was born. His brother Edmund was thirteen years older than he. And his mother died in childbirth at the age of 45, when he (Karol) was only eight. The wide spacing of the children in the devoutly Catholic Wojtyla family suggests that the parents were open to life even when his mother was at an advanced age, and it is an example that being open to life does not necessarily result in a large family.

Considering that John Paul II’s mother died in childbirth, one might think he would have condoned the use of artificial contraceptives, at least in cases of advanced maternal age or other extenuating circumstances. Yet during the drafting of Humanae Vitae, Cardinal Wojtyla strongly supported and assisted Paul VI in his writing. He fully understood that “the teaching of the church regarding the proper regulation of birth is a promulgation of the law of God Himself” (HV 20). Indeed, it is only with the eyes of faith that can we see God’s loving and provident hand in the untimely death of Karol’s mother. The example of the Wojtyla family shows us that being open to life does not spare us from suffering, but it does draw forth tremendous blessings, such as having holy children.

So, as bishops and cardinals look for new ways to reform the church, let us who are married do our part by being faithful to our vocations as spouses and parents. By our example, let us show our children the beauty of conjugal love and marriage as God planned it. Doing so will confer upon us “a deeper and more effective influence on the education of [our] children.” (HV 21) Co-operating with God in this way, we can raise strong, convicted men and women who are committed to living lives of holy purity while protecting and upholding the Church’s teachings on love and marriage.

The renewal of the Church can come from the heart of our homes.

Mary Cooney is a home-schooling mother of six who lives in Maryland. The above article is a slightly abridged and edited version of one published on her blog, Mercy for Marthas. Read the original article.


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