Hearing and Speaking the Truth of Humanae Vitae

Deafness, like blindness, can be an impediment — or it can be a willful posture.

Ottheinreigh Folio, Page 55v: Healing of a deaf-mute, Mark 7:31-37
Ottheinreigh Folio, Page 55v: Healing of a deaf-mute, Mark 7:31-37 (photo: Register Files)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus cures a man who is deaf and suffering from a speech impediment. Jesus prays over him, “Ephphatha—be opened!” and the man gains the capacity to hear and to speak. Indeed, he’s so good at speaking that, despite Jesus’ injunction “not to tell anyone,” he went off proclaiming the miracle far and wide.

Jesus’s miracles are of two kinds: miracles of nature (like walking on water) and of healing (like healing this deaf mute). The latter are much more predominant, and for good reason: they tell very clearly that Jesus’ mission is to heal man. Jesus heals man from what’s wrong with him: fundamentally sin as well as the punishments of sin, sickness and death. That’s why the ultimate healing miracle is the Resurrection and why the General Resurrection on the Last Day is the healing of what was broken “in the beginning.” Jesus came for man to “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

(That mission of healing extends to all men. Today’s Gospel begins by saying the healing of the deaf man with the speech impediment happened in “the district of the Decapolis,” i.e., pagan territory).

Jesus has mercy on a man who cannot hear and cannot speak. He prays that he ‘be opened.” The call to “be opened” and to hear is a recurrent theme in the Bible. When Moses tries to get out of the mission God wants to give him to lead the Hebrews to freedom, he appeals to his lack of eloquence that some even regard as a speech problem (see Exodus 4:10, 6:30). When Isaiah sees God, he recoils because he is “a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). The Psalmist warns us, “if today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95:8—which means people can be deaf to His Word). Instead, we should “sing joyfully to the Lord” (Psalm 95:1).

Even Jesus’ command that the cured man “not … tell anyone” is only temporary. In the first part of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is constantly telling people not to talk about what He did. This “Messianic Secret” to buy time until the whole truth about Jesus can be put on the table. Jesus does not want His identity to be prematurely disclosed lest it be wrongly understood – like, when out of mercy He feeds the crowd, they want to carry Him off to be their King and free lunch provider (see John 6:15, read this summer). But there comes a point in Mark’s Gospel – after the Resurrection – when the whole truth of Jesus is out on the table. At that point, the Messianic Secret ends: “Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15) – because now you should be able to say who I am.

The account of the deaf and mute man has so many possible allusions to Humanae vitae.

Jesus commands the man to “be opened.” The Church also calls on the faithful to “be open” … open to the gift of life when “each and every marriage act (quilibet matrimonii usus) must remain open to the transmission of life” (HV no. 11, using an older, less literal translation). And it is precisely that notion of openness which lies at the heart of Catholic sexual ethics: God is “the Lord and Giver of Life.” Man is gifted with the vocation of cooperating with the Creator through parenthood, but God is God . . . and man is not.

Jesus opens the ears of a deaf man. How many people today remain deaf to the Church’s teaching in Humanae vitae, pretending that the constant and uninterrupted tradition of Christianity for more than 1,900 years – a tradition the Church faithfully maintains – is some kind of discretionary and optional teaching? Let’s be honest. Sexual ethics is not marginal to most peoples’ lives. Sex is a part of the average person’s life. If the Church cannot teach correctly on a matter of such basic relevance to the vast majority of human beings who have lived and live on this planet, then the Church is not a moral teacher about anything. That’s what you have to concede if you insist that the teaching of Humanae vitae can morally be ignored. And, if you concede that, perhaps you should ask why – like the Jews who found Jesus’ talk about the Eucharist “a hard teaching” – you have not “gone your own way.”

Deafness, like blindness, can be an impediment. Or it can be a willful posture. That’s why the paradox of the story of the man born blind whom Jesus heals at the Pool of Siloam (John 9) is the question: who really is blind? The man born physically blind? Or the Pharisees who shut their eyes to what was right in front of them? Who really is deaf? The man born without hearing? Or the man who refuses to hear His Voice in His Church?

Jesus also opens the man’s lips and the man begins speaking. Part of the reason Humanae vitae remains a bone of contention is that its opponents vocally proclaim their dissent, even flaunting a “right to dissent,” while others say nothing. This is especially true of priests, whose studied silence about Humanae vitae in at least the Western world has been deafening. (I admit, of course, that amid the current scandal about sexual abuse by priests, their moral credibility is diminished). But likewise absent has been witness by lay people to the possibility of living according to the rich vision of Humanae vitae. Why are we so tongue-tied about this encyclical’s teaching? Do we need our own moral Ephphatha?

Every day, the Church begins its daily cycle of prayer with the Invitatory Antiphon: “Lord, open my lips//and my mouth shall declare your praise.” Perhaps that should be our prayer in this year of Humanae vitae.