Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality can transform lives for the better. So why is no one talking about it?
Mary Shivanandan is.
The author of Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II's Anthropology and professor (and, until recently, associate dean) of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family spoke recently to Register features correspondent Tim Drake.
Drake: Where are you from originally? Were you raised Catholic?
My father was Irish and my mother Scottish. We were brought up mostly in England although we spent a few years at school in Australia.
My father left the Catholic Church when he left Ireland and my mother did not practice her Protestant faith, but my father insisted we go to Catholic schools because, he said, “Catholics are the only ones with any morals.”
At an early age I developed a devotion to Mary and began to say the rosary, which I have continued ever since. The love I experienced in the Eucharist also profoundly formed me.
My father was tragically killed when I was 17. This and other events led me to question my faith.
At Cambridge University where I majored in Classics I hardly attended any Catholic activities but I never stopped going to Sunday Mass.
After graduation I felt a strong need either to be serious about my faith or to give it up. By God's grace I made a commitment to take it seriously and have done so ever since.
How did you meet your husband?
I emigrated to Canada and worked in the national radio in Toronto and Montreal. That is where I met my husband, an astrophysicist from Sri Lanka. He then went to the United States. For nine months he sent a letter or card every day. Once, while visiting New York, he sent five cards in one day!
We are celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary with a trip to Lourdes in July.
We settled first in Boston where our son was born. It was very important to me to be at home when the children were growing up. At the same time I had many intellectual interests so I combined child rearing with writing and research. This was a wonderful way to be present to the children and also contribute to the public square.
At the height of the women's movement our teenage daughter asked me why I was wasting my talents since I did not go out to do a full-time job.
She, of course, appreciates now the fact that I didn't. It is all a question of priorities and of timing.
What topics did you write about?
I wrote on many different topics, from America's bicentennial to a café in Georgetown that ministered to young street people.
Paul VI issued an invitation for those engaged in the media to contribute to evangelization. I remember thinking that I could contribute some of my talents.
The next thing I knew the only articles that were accepted for publication concerned marriage and family. Soon I was given a column in the magazine Marriage & Family Living and then a book proposal to write about natural family planning was accepted by a New York publisher. …
Natural family planning remains one of the Church's best kept secrets. Why do you think more couples are not embracing its use?
I would agree that it is still one of the Church's best-kept secrets.
One of the reasons is that it takes time to appreciate all the benefits. As a society we expect instant answers, instant relief from any painful situation.
The pill is so easy and quintessentially “modern” and feminist. But in fact it demeans the woman, treating her fertility like a disease. It asks nothing of the man whereas NFP [natural family planning] calls for joint responsibility for fertility.
In our present culture, practicing NFP calls for a conversion. It really involves adopting a whole new way of life, one that appreciates the gift of the body, fertility and children. …
We have lost the sense of the sacredness of the body. Christianity is unique, as the Pope says, in giving full value to the body. The body is central to all the mysteries of our faith from the Incarnation to Jesus’ death on the cross (the source of all grace), the Resurrection and the Eucharist. …
What led you to write Crossing the Threshold of Love?
My dissertation with much editing became Crossing the Threshold of Love. It is in two parts and represents not just my studies at the Institute but 20 years of immersion in the marriage, family and NFP fields.
The book is now used as a textbook in seminaries and other Catholic institutions. Excerpts both of the Pope's Theology of the Body and my book have been incorporated into a four-season study guide for interested lay groups under the auspices of Women Affirming Life.
A study group will be offered in each of the five areas of the Archdiocese of Boston in the fall through the Archdiocesan Institute for Ministry. Recently, 40 participants from three states, Maine, New Hampshire and Boston took part in a training session for facilitators of the study guide.
It is being given in other dioceses as well. Maine is offering it in a three-day retreat, at which the bishop will say the Mass. …
What do you view as the greatest threats to marriage and the family?
One of the greatest threats is, I believe, the present tendency towards androgyny and the confusion of roles between men and women.
This is why John Paul II continues to stress the role of the woman as mother.
No one can truly replace the mother in the family. This does not mean, as he says, that the woman should not contribute in the public square, but it must not be at the expense of the children, especially. We are at risk of raising a generation deprived of love in varying degrees. …
It has already been shown that divorce [also] poses a threat to children. If children are loved in a secure home they are much less likely to be tempted by drugs, out-of-wedlock sex or pornography. …
How can the family survive such threats?
I would put prayer and witness to faith at the top of the list, making Christ the center of family life. It is very important for the father to give example here.
Just a simple practice as grace before meals brings God to mind twice a day.
Family prayer in the evening is a more significant way for the family to be “domestic church.” And of course, Mass and the Eucharist as often as possible.
The parents must live their faith especially when it is difficult. Associating with other families who share the same Christian values both inside and outside the parish is also critical.
Being there for the children, taking time to listen and responding in a loving but firm way when they go off track is important. Children are bombarded with contrary messages and often the parent is the safest person to shock.
Usually the child simply needs reassurance that the message is unacceptable or untrue. Clear boundaries are a must. Children need to know what is expected of them.
Finally, mutual forgiveness. As parents we are fallible. We make mistakes and sometimes fly off the handle. Children will respect us if we apologize. It helps them accept their own humanness.
John Paul II also speaks about honoring our children, accepting them fully as unique persons made in the image of God.