The Texas Inkling


The Liturgy and Spiritual Contraception by Nathan Anthony Kennedy

Annie Dillard once remarked that our casual approach to religion was something akin to "children making a batch of dynamite with a chemistry set on the living room floor." We have no idea what we are dealing with really. Our bland services with our kitschy music and our pop-psych confessions have totally blinded us to the true magnitude of exactly what we are dealing with: the supreme act of God's love made present to us effecting our salvation. Suggest the true awesomeness of the event taking place, the true importance of being present with this event, or the absolute reality that this event poses for us, and often than not a blank stare, stifled snicker, or condescending rationalization will follow. To many of us, nothing is sacred anymore, not even the divine worship of God. Keeping the liturgy pure has given way to the whims of the moment, whatever is perceived to express the identity of the "People of God" at the given time. The idea that there are some things that we cannot change to our liking, that there should be some sense of boundary or limitation, is seen as an attack on human freedom or a hindrance to creativity.

So goes the state of the liturgy. As Vatican II states, the Eucharist is the "source and summit" of the Christian life. How we regard our liturgy, which is how we worship God, is how we regard all things in life. There is a clear link between the lax and fluffy regard toward the liturgy and the lax and fluffy regard held by many of us to sex. Sex, indeed, is a liturgical action with its place within the sacrament of Holy Matrimony; its role in the human person is ordered so that it derives from and is a sign of the divine love of God for His Church. Sex, like the liturgy, can be a dangerous thing if misused. Sex, also like the liturgy, is in a current state of being horribly misused.

Catholic teaching on sex holds that there are two basic purposes for it: the first being procreation, the second being the unification of the husband and wife. These two purposes can never be separated. Each and every act of sexual union must be open to new life, and each new conception of new life must involve the sexual union of the marital partners. To choose contraception is to choose the union without procreation; to choose in vitro fertilization is to choose procreation without union. Each act defies the purpose of sex within the sign and sacrament of Holy Matrimony, that is, to choose one over the other is to distort the marital union itself.

The sexual union is the sign and sacrament of the union of husband and wife, while the Holy Eucharist is the sign and sacrament of the unity of the Body of Christ. Holy Communion is where God meets His people, where the faithful are elevated into ecstatic union into the physical Body of Christ. There are essentially two purposes for the Holy Eucharist: the first being union with God (a "vertical" component), the second being union with our Christian brothers and sisters (a "horizontal" component). As with the sexual union, the Eucharistic union is one that cannot choose one of these purposes at the expense of the other. To choose the vertical component at the expense of the horizontal component is to choose a purely individualistic and falsely mystical religion; to choose only the horizontal component is to choose a falsely communal and non-mystical religion.

Our society has deemed it acceptable to, within the sexual act, isolate (more fittingly: divorce) one component from the other. The most widespread example of this is contraception, by which the couple chooses the unitive component to the exclusion of the procreative. Many within the Church have, since Vatican II, decided to carry out the same error within the liturgy.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI released his watershed encyclical Humanae Vitae which boldly reinforced the Church's teaching on sexuality, including her insistence that contraception is a moral evil. With an unprecedented amount of dissent from the ranks of academic theologians and cultural Catholics, many within the American Church came out and blatantly said "We reject Humanae Vitae." Vatican II had just ended three years earlier, and the liturgical reforms already were underway. The rebellion against Humanae Vitae—and thus the papacy itself—provided a glimpse into the overall spirit that pervaded the changes that took place within the liturgy.

What is important to note is that the musical styles introduced into the Mass, the multitudinous "innovations" (think, the Clown Mass, the Folk Mass, the Rock Mass, Liturgical Dancing, etc.) do not encourage participation in the liturgy. They encourage participation to be sure, but not what Sacrosanctum Concilium referred to as "full and conscious" participation, and not participation in the liturgy. Rather, they encourage mere participation regardless of the liturgical acts, indifferent to the magnitude of the Mass itself. The greatest hymns of the Catholic Christian tradition have always been those of pure and unadulterated praise of God. Think, for example, of the Gloria in excelsis Deo and the Te Deum laudamus recited at every solemn recitation of the Divine Office. Sacred music throughout the Church's history has always been directed upward toward God; it has always served as a forerunner and foretaste of the eternal worship of God in the heavenly temple.

The music used in Catholic churches since Vatican II have instead been directed outward, not upward. They sing the praises of the "People of God", singing more about ourselves than of God. The horizontal component of Holy Communion is celebrated with no small lack of sobriety. We go forth to receive our Lord and Savior, immolated for our sins and whose resurrection destroys our death, with the monotonous refrains of "Here I am Lord, / Is it I Lord? / I have heard you calling in the night...." being drilled into our heads. Nothing hints at what is going on. There is no indication of the true power of the Mass. It is no wonder why so few Catholics fulfill their Sunday obligation; it is no wonder why so few Catholics believe in the truth of the Eucharist anymore.

What is behind this? What spiritual malady is responsible for this great failure of liturgical life? It is spiritual contraception. The marital act is a matter of total self-giving of one spouse to another—contraception is a holding back of one of the most intimate aspects of the self from the other. In the liturgy, we experience a total self-gift of, first, God to us, and then in response ourselves to God ("Lift up your hearts; we lift them up to the Lord"). The liturgy itself is the reality behind the sign and sacrament of the marital act: spousal relations derive directly from this mutual exchange of love between Christ and the Church. The incidentals of the liturgy are intended to bring us closer and more fully into this wonderful mystery. What much of our music and our attitudes toward the liturgy demonstrate is that we are truly unwilling and completely terrified at the true reality behind the Mass. All love must be fruitful—the fruit of the love within the Mass is sanctity and redemption. The fruit of marital love is new life. The fact that Christians are called to a new life within Christ finds its consummation within the Mass in the way that the creation of new life finds its consummation in the marital act. Our music is not objectionable because it is merely tacky, nor because it is oftentimes doctrinally inaccurate, but because it serves as a spiritual condom that we wear in order to keep from contracting the disease of new life. If we are unable to fully receive our Lord, then we are equally unable to fully give ourselves to our Lord.

It is hard to know which one came first—laxity in the liturgy or laxity in the bedroom. The question has something of a "chicken-or-the-egg" quality to it. Temporally, the question poses an unsolvable riddle, but metaphysically, it is very easy to see. Since the liturgy is the proper source of human sexuality, that is, it is only in reference to the liturgy that we can understand and have proper knowledge of human sexuality, it follows that the laxity in the liturgy is the source of the laxity in the bedroom. Without understanding the importance of human activities in their proper nature before God, it is impossible to understand the true importance of any human activity. Human beings were created to have their entire beings supplicated in adoration before God—put a barrier to this end, and all human activities will end up with barriers toward their true end. Sex, after all, is not an act of pleasure, though it is pleasurable. Perhaps it is even inaccurate to say that its primary purpose is that of procreation. It is more to the point to say that its primary act is that of the adoration of God.

One cannot make the mistake of underestimating the power of the liturgy, though we often do. Neither can one make the mistake of underestimating the emotional and spiritual power of human sexuality, though we often do. We often come to the question, how do we save marriage? We should start by saving the liturgy. We also come to the question, how do we save the liturgy? Start by saving marriage. The liturgy is a marriage, and marriage is liturgy. We must throw out our contraception in the bedroom and on the altar—our contraception consists of rubber, chemicals, and mutilations as much as it does kitsch, tack, and gaud. Let us courageously love our God, and let us courageously love our husbands and wives, for in the words of the Letter of John, "Perfect love casts out all fear."

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