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July 22, 2018: The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

First Reading Jeremiah 23:1-6
Second Reading Ephesians 2:13-18
Gospel Mark 6:30-34

Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord.

Discord is part and parcel of life in this fallen world. The great British author G. K. Chesterton once said that Original Sin is the simplest of all Christian dogmas to prove: all you have to do is pick up the newspaper (or in our day, click on a news app). By contrast, we Christians are called into unity and to foster unity.

Jesus told us simply to love God, and to love our neighbor. We can consider these two great commands in terms of being called into unity, and being called to foster unity. To love God is to be united with God, and to love one’s neighbor ultimately means that all the members of the human race would foster unity with each other, forming a single family of God’s children.

Yet if today this seems beyond us, we ought to recall that the first generations of Christians struggled with these two commands of love. Today’s Second Reading offers a case in point. St. Paul is preaching against the division between Jews and Gentiles in the city of Ephesus. Throughout his entire letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul preaches about unity, and about where this unity must come from. Paul points to Christ, because Christ “is our peace, He who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through His Flesh… [so] that He might create in Himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace”.

Lasting peace, and all its fruits, can only come from unity through Christ. This is true in every aspect of life, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the vocation of Holy Matrimony. Christ Himself instructs us—when He’s questioned about what’s wrong with divorce—that “He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and… ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’” [Mt 19:4-5, quoting Gn 1:27; 2:24].

This call to unity can be broken not only by divorce, though. Much more common in our Western culture is a sin that is praised by some—strangely enough—as an act of responsibility and even prudence: that is, the sin of artificial contraception.

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Fifty years ago this Wednesday, a watershed event took place amidst a generational deluge of change. On July 25, 1968, Blessed Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae. The Pope’s teaching was not new. In fact, his teaching was not his, in the sense that he was not its author. Humanae Vitae’s teaching is consistent with the prior 1900 years of Church teaching upon the encyclical’s chief topics. In other words, the teaching of this encyclical is the teaching of Jesus Christ. In giving this teaching to His Bride, the Church, Jesus has given of Himself, to reveal to His bride how to share in His own self-sacrificial love.

Humanae Vitae focuses upon three chief topics: human nature, the nature of marriage, and specifically the morality of artificial means of contraception. Those three are the chief lenses through which one must read, ponder, and pray over the encyclical. In considering the encyclical’s teaching about any one of these three, the other two have to be kept in mind. It’s much easier to dismiss the prophetic teaching of Humanae Vitae if you claim that it’s “only” about the morality of artificial contraception.

Why has Humanae Vitae seemed so controversial since Blessed Paul VI promulgated it? A first reason is that so many Christian denominations had since 1930 changed their teachings to suggest that using artificial contraception could sometimes be morally acceptable. By the 1960’s, then, the Catholic Church seemed behind the times. In the first months of 1968 there was a widespread expectation that with Humanae Vitae, the Catholic Church would finally get “with it”.

Blessed Paul VI determined, however, that it’s better for the Church to be with Christ than to be “with it”, which in any given generation is nothing but a shifting tide of public opinion. To be with Christ is to share in His self-sacrificial love.

The Church’s teachings in this field, enriched so greatly over the past decades by St. John Paul the Great, show that planning a family according to natural means bestows not only moral and spiritual benefits upon wife, husband, and their shared married life. Planning a family according to natural means also has medical benefits, while artificial means of contraception are showing, more and more over time, how much physical harm can come from choosing what is artificial.

More and more people realize that they deserve better. Many are realizing that that “something better” comes from God Himself, in the order of nature by which He designed man and woman.

As secular culture continues to fragment, and as more broken homes lead to more broken lives and to more crime, poverty, drug abuse and homelessness, the leaders of the Church are calling us back to the basics. The Church needs to go back to the heart of things to recover a way of life that has been mocked and abused in our secular culture for too long: a life of modesty, purity, and chastity.

Many in our culture are only waking up now to the hard truth about the consequences of believing that it’s beneficial for a couple to separate the act of marital love from the openness of that act to conception. Many in our culture are only realizing now what happens when, for decades, a culture claims that this act has no intrinsic connection to child-bearing. Many are only realizing now that a culture that claims that marriage doesn’t have to be open to the bearing of children is a culture that believes itself free to redefine marriage.

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The secular culture is never going to be convinced of the truth of what the Church teaches unless the Church’s members embrace—by living out—the Church’s beliefs about Marriage and family life. The leaders of our Church see that. These same leaders also see the warnings in today’s First Reading from the prophetic Book of Jeremiah. The prophet Jeremiah’s warning is to worldly “shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of” the Lord’s pasture. The prophet cries out in the name of the Lord, saying to those unfaithful shepherds: “You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. … but I will take care to punish your evil deeds. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands… and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply.” We in the modern Western world need to admit that this meadow is not the materialism promoted in the mass media. This meadow is the “verdant pastures” and “restful waters” of the spiritual and moral teachings of Jesus Christ, handed down to us by Jesus’ Bride, the Church.

Yet the prophet Jeremiah also promises that the Lord’s flock will be given faithful shepherds. The prophet cries out in the name of the Lord, declaring: “I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing”. Too many children are missing in our world today because we’ve accepted the secular culture’s claim that divorcing the act of physical union from an openness to conception bears no consequences. But the consequences mount all around us.

The solution to a culture that canonizes barrenness, self-promotion, and immediate satisfaction of one’s every desire is the Way of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. As a Christian, you must never kid yourself into thinking that this Way is easy, broad and comfortable. After all, your life is not about you: as the Psalmist sings in the 23rd Psalm, “He guides me in right paths for His Name’s sake.” About those “right paths” we need to remember what Jesus explained to us: “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” [Mt 7:14]. Nonetheless, take comfort in the truth that if you follow the Good Shepherd on this narrow Way, you “shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”