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What They Don’t Know

July 11, AD 2013 15 Comments

JoeMaryweddingI confess that I’m one of those people who woke up on June 26th and immediately grabbed for my laptop, in order to watch the marriage decisions come in live on the SCOTUS blog. Because it seemed like a rather historic moment, and because I’m a huge nerd.  How did you spend your summer day? someone might ask, and I’ll have to answer Oh, just reading Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion.  I also spent my lunchtime a couple of weeks ago poring over the Paula Deen deposition transcript, so yeah.  Now you won’t be surprised when I tell you that I never excelled in any sort of organized athletic activity whatsoever.

As for my thoughts on the outcome of the rulings, well, I was not surprised but quite disappointed.  As a Catholic I’m obviously a believer in the historic Christian understanding of marriage–which is really the issue, isn’t it?  What is marriage?  People of faith are so often characterized as being against things–abortion, contraception, and adultery to name a few–when in actuality, the reason we are against those things is because we are for something else.  And as the debate over who can be legally recognized as married in this country rages on, this piece of the conversation is regularly obfuscated by talking points and emotionalism.  On both sides.  I fear that few people, period, have a good understanding of what the sacrament of marriage is.  And this is a real shame because without a working knowledge of the general Christian view on holy matrimony, a Christian will have a difficult time explaining why exactly traditional marriage is important.

Although I’m Catholic now, in my former life as an evangelical I felt that civil unions and gay marriages were not terribly problematic.  See I really like when people are nice, and it sounded very not-nice to tell someone, even if you disagreed with them, that they can’t marry the person they want to.  I didn’t understand the point of crusading against something that posed no apparent threat to heterosexual couples, and I also didn’t get the whole fixation on homosexuality in general.  We all sin, I figured, so why is everyone picking on gay people? 

But four years ago I became curious about the historic Christian beliefs about marriage, and birth control in particular.  My husband and I had reached the place where we were uncomfortable contracepting–it seemed as if people were going to unbelievably great lengths to suppress the very natural result of sexual union between man and wife, and it felt wrong to us–but we had no real theological underpinnings to justify our suspicions that Protestants had gone off the rails in this area.  I had of course heard that those crazy, Mary-worshipping Catholics weren’t supposed to use birth control, so I turned to Google in hopes of discovering the answer to the age-old question of what is the purpose of human sexuality?  (FYI, it turns out that Catholics don’t worship Mary.  Who knew?)

It was ultimately a combination of Blessed John Paul II’s encyclicals–back when I didn’t even know what an encyclical was–and Cormac Burke’s Covenanted Happiness, that once and for all illuminated what marriage is really all about for me.  Prior to reading them, I’d had no clue.  I’d never encountered these ideas before because evangelicals don’t talk much about natural law, and they certainly don’t have many things to say about the purpose or deeper meaning of the marital union.  They can’t, really, because then they’d have to get into the whole procreation thing.  It’s a sizable can of worms.

And if you’re wondering why I’m writing about these things today, well, the reason is this: we are becoming a minority, we who believe that a marriage by its very definition requires a man and a woman.  Which means that we probably know more people than not who disagree with us, people who wonder (like I used to wonder) what the big deal is in allowing two women or two men to pledge to be together forever.  And if you’re like me, you have gay friends.  And quite honestly, regardless of sexual orientation, people are looking for love or acceptance or happiness–or all of the above.  So we Catholics must, amidst the debates and politics and Facebook-profile-picture-wars, remember that the average person has never heard God’s beautiful plan for men and for women.

The average person has never heard God’s beautiful plan for men and for women.

When I see photos of dear friends marching in gay pride parades, or sit at a table surrounded by women who think I’m a jerk for believing in restricting marriage to one man and one woman, I think about this.  I think about how I used to be on the pill.  I think about how there was a time when I felt frustrated in church because everything about evangelicalism had started to seem arbitrary.  I think about how I used to equate setting moral standards with “being judgmental.”  I think about how I scoffed at a well-known evangelical’s booklet defending traditional marriage.

I think about how I lacked the information to properly connect the dots between God, creation, personhood, marriage, children, natural law, and the good of society.

And there are countless people in the exact same boat, people who were either never taught or could never accept God’s design for man and for woman, for holy matrimony and for sexuality.  To them, our cries for traditional marriage and our use of terms like “disordered” and “chaste” and “procreative” sound unbelievably irrelevant.  They want to hear love, and they don’t hear it there.  Because they don’t know what it is.  And at the end of the day, if one does not accept that, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “God is the author of marriage”, then one has no real foundation for believing in a set definition of marriage.  Period.

So Catholics, you must remember that you have a gift in the Church, a gift in the Holy Spirit, and as such, a gift in knowing precisely who you are.  It is easy to take all that for granted, which is why I occasionally sit and remember back to when truth felt relative because I belonged to a faith tradition that often prided itself on not having concrete answers.  And I love where I come from, but I’m grateful that God brought my husband and me into the fullness of the faith.  I’d had no idea the extent of wholeness and love and grace that was merely there for the taking.

As we stand and pray for traditional marriage, let us also take this amazingly unprecedented opportunity–when the entire nation is wanting to talk about marriage, sex, and children–to share God’s design for men and for women.  Let us explain why exactly it is that we believe sexuality was created for married couples, why we are open to life, and why marriage is so very sacred.  Let us live lives that reflect the joy and beauty of our faith and of our vocation.  Let us be available for conversations where we can correct any misconceptions about historic Christian belief, and share our perspective with clarity and love.  Speaking as someone who once went searching for these very answers, I can tell you how very hungry our world is for truth.  You may not change any minds or win any hearts, but you will have done your part to bring God’s saving and life-giving message about men and women to a culture drowning in deprivation and death.  And there’s always the chance that a future convert, like I was, is listening.

Filed in: Columnists, Married Life • Tags: ,

About the Author:

Brianna Heldt is a mother to seven, recent convert to the Catholic faith, and writer who blogs at Just Showing Up. In addition to her three biological daughters, she and her husband are also parents to four adopted children from Ethiopia, including two daughters with Down syndrome. When Brianna is not busy blogging or homeschooling, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, reading good books, thrifting, and advocating for orhpaned children with medical needs. She lives with her husband and kids in Denver, and is eagerly anticipating the birth of her eighth child, due in February.
  • Matthew H

    An enjoyable post. Thanks for writing.

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  • JQ Tomanek

    I really enjoyed Burke’s book too! Great post. You are right, the culture is primed for evangelizing marriage and what it is meant for.

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  • Randy Gritter

    The average person? Even the average hard core pro-life, pro-marriage Christian does not grasp the reason why artificial contraception is wrong. So even those who know in their hearts we are right don’t know why we are right, not the whole reason anyway. So how can we make a convincing argument to the culture when we most of us don’t grasp the big picture?

    • James

      One problem is that too many Catholics rely on warmed-over old Natural Law explanations that they don’t even understand. Others simply rely on a “because the Church said so” argument from authority. (The dissenters’ argument against HV was that is was about papal authority, not contraception.) Neither is very convincing.
      The solution is, as Crosby, Stills, and Nash put it: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” What is God’s design for sexuality and marriage? What was sexuality like before the fall? This is what John Paul II did with Theology of the Body. (Love and Responsibility deals with similar themes from the perspective of classical ethical reasoning.)

      It is when we look at what the sexual act was meant to be—an act of true unity between the spouses, then we can see how removing the natural procreative element from this act is contrary to this unity. If sex in marriage was designed to say “I love you”, then contraception says “I love you, but…” It is conditional love, which is an oxymoron.

      This is especially true in the case of sterilization and hormonal contraception. Such methods say, “I will harm myself so that you cannot have that part of me” or “I do not want that part of you, so suppress it so I do not have to deal with it.”

      In the contraceptive culture in which we live, most people are not aware of what their actions are saying. Most people see contraception as responsible or virtuous. But social mores do not change objective truths or objective meanings of actions.

      Natural Family Planning, on the other hand, respects the body. The methods involve learning about and observing the woman’s body. The couple “plays the ball where it lies” with fertility, respecting the natural processes and their bodies. If the couple knows that conception is possible, but has good reason to avoid it, then not having sex is a loving act. Abstinence says, “I want all of you, but since it would be imprudent and selfish to have all of you tonight, I will wait.” When the couple comes together again, they hold back nothing.

      Yes, couples can use the method selfishly, avoiding each other for less than loving reasons and accepting each other only during the infertile periods. But it’s very hard to use NFP selfishly, because nature pushes couples toward each other, especially during times of fertility. Using NFP selfishly would involve using self-control and self-sacrifice to serve selfishness, which is contradictory. Such behavior is often a case of misplaced priorities in life, not a sexual issue.

  • KarenJo12

    So, what are those reasons? You tell me your Church’s rules are wonderful for women and then don’t describe the rules or what makes the so wonderful.

    • Mama Kelly

      Hey Karen! You sound like me, until I came across some writings of Pope John Paul II. Here is one speech he gave on the dignity of women…check it out:

      There is a link to Mulieris Dignitatem, which goes into more of the Church’s teaching on women. I hope you’ll take some time to reflect on our Blessed Pope’s teaching. Peace to you!

    • BriannaHeldt

      Hi Karen, I didn’t go into the reasons because it was outside of the scope of this article–which was specifically directed at Catholics who already know the reasons. It’s not so much about rules for women as the truth behind who women and men are as human beings, created by a loving and personal God. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem was one of the first things I read, and I loved it. He does an excellent job of expressing the Church’s position. You can read it here:

      God bless!

    • JoAnna Wahlund

      Karen, here is another article that may be helpful for you. It’s by Dr. Janet Smith and called “Contraception: Why Not?”

    • James

      We didn’t see how the Church’s rules could be wonderful for women (especially my wife, who was not raised Catholic) until we started looking at the issue from a women’s health perspective. She never felt comfortable with many of the Catholic sources, but absolutely loved the secular NFP book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility. I like to say that a Jewish feminist taught us how to fully appreciate Catholic teaching. The is another good source.

      I think the non-Catholic sources provide a fresh approach that can be helpful to people who might not respond to more traditional “Catholic” approaches. There are many different paths to the same truth.

      Once we were able to see that contraception really is unhealthy, NFP really does work, and NFP really is better for your health and your relationship, the “Catholic part” started to fall into place.


    Also, they’re evil degenerates.

  • Warth Publishing Inc

    In my opinion your essays are too wordy. Just get to the point.

    • Piers Cadell

      And your point is?

  • Gonzalo Palacios

    Sexual activity has been created by God as a way of transmitting life and expressing love. Life, yes, as that which is infused into us at Baptism and nurtured by the Holy Spirit in the sacramental life. The essential reason for sexual [and all other human] activity is to express love, as Our Lord commanded us and as the Mother of His Church taught us: reread Benedict XVI’s “God is Love.” To reverse that order perverts our Lord’s commandment. Gonzalo T. Palacios, Ph.D., C.U.A., 1970, Author, “The Virgin Mary’s Revolution” (2013).