Catholics in the United States have, for many years, celebrated the days of October as “Respect Life Month.” This year a special event is taking place in Rome that is somewhat related.
On Oct. 14, Pope Francis will canonize two great men who were Catholic bishops of the 20th century: Bl. Pope Paul VI, the pope of my youth, and Bl. Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop from El Salvador.
This year also happens to be the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s great encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Transmission of Human Life), and therein lies the connection with Respect Life Month. Though it’s often billed as the “encyclical that banned birth control,” Humanae Vitae is a life-affirming letter upholding the beauty and sacredness of marriage, the bond from which life springs.
So much has been written and spoken of this encyclical this year that I will not attempt in this small space to add my own commentary. But one aspect of Humanae Vitae that may get overlooked is Paul VI’s emphasis on marriage as vocation. In one particular paragraph of a section in which he directly addresses married couples, he uses the word vocation or calling no less than three times.
Let Christian husbands and wives be mindful of their vocation to the Christian life, a vocation which, deriving from their Baptism, has been confirmed anew and made more explicit by the Sacrament of Matrimony. For by this sacrament they are strengthened and, one might almost say, consecrated to the faithful fulfillment of their duties. Thus will they realize to the full their calling and bear witness as becomes them, to Christ before the world. For the Lord has entrusted to them the task of making visible to men and women the holiness and joy of the law which united inseparably their love for one another and the cooperation they give to God’s love, God who is the Author of human life. (Humanae Vitae, 25)
Marriage is not simply something we do to fulfill our desire to be with another and not be alone; it is, in the Christian understanding, a state to which God calls a person, in order to serve him and our fellow human beings through serving our spouse. It is as much a vocation as is my calling to the priesthood, or another person’s calling to the consecrated life. Paul VI, in fact, uses the word “consecrated” with respect to married people. They are “set aside” for one another and for God — yet another way of expressing that marriage is a vocation.
When someone responds to a vocation — a calling from God — she or he does so not in half measures, not allowing self-interest to guide his or her decisions. One gives oneself completely to God, and in the case of marriage, a husband gives himself to God through his wife, and a wife through her husband.
Seen in this light, Paul VI’s teaching on complete openness to human life during the marital act (which, by the way, Archbishop Romero called a “sacred act which transmits human life”) makes more sense. The dual purposes of the conjugal act — procreation and bringing the couple closer together — are so intimately linked to each other and to the sacrament of marriage itself that for spouses to hold back on the first would be to fall short in fulfilling the second. A spouse wants to give himself or herself completely to the other. And yet, in using contraception, a spouse is effectively saying, “I give myself totally to you, except for my fertility, except for my willingness to give you children.”
As disciples of Jesus, we all have a vocation, the first being to become saints. The call to marriage is the way that most Christians respond to God’s call and work out their salvation. Letting themselves be guided by the wisdom of the Church, handed down to us in letters such as Humanae Vitae, Christian married couples can be a great sign of God’s love for the human family and of his gift of life.
In this Respect Life Month, then, let us pray in a special way for all married couples and those preparing to receive this sacrament — and pray in thanksgiving for them, as they continue to live out their vocations and be a great source of life and a witness of God’s love for the world.