Humanae Vitae and Divine Providence

Today Jesus is asking parents, “are you ready to set out on the parental journey?”

Carl Jutz, “Enten am Teich,” ca. 1916
Carl Jutz, “Enten am Teich,” ca. 1916 (photo: Public Domain)

The Gospel for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 15) speaks of Jesus sending His Apostles out on a mission. It sounds a lot like what happens in seminaries in May or June: here are your “pastoral assignments” for the summer. X is going to this parish, Y is going to that one. It sounds a little, too, like the practice among Mormons who, when they reach the age of majority, often spend a two year period in “missionary” work. As modern popes have all emphasized, Christians are by nature missionaries.

Jesus wants them to get a taste of what they are in for.

What interests me are Jesus’ instructions. Christ would never be hired as an executive assistant or a general services officer.

“Take nothing for the journey.”

Hey, wait a minute! Clearly, Jesus has not hung around the baggage carousels at Ben Gurion Airport. Today’s traveler struggles to save some money by avoiding a second bag, and Jesus wants him to give up a second tunic. It’s practically like getting your baggage lost and having to make do with the clothes you arrived in!

Jesus sends out his Apostles, making them dependent on factors outside their control. They might be welcomed – or they might not. They might be welcomed at the Hebron Hilton – or the Hadera hovel. They might feast on roast lamb or cooked grasshoppers. (Oh, right, they weren’t going to visit cousin John).

Jesus wanted them to learn a very essential Christian habit, one relevant not just for itinerant missionaries: relying on divine Providence.

Jesus wanted them to be like the birds of the air who wake up and leave the nest, not knowing where the next meal is coming from (Matthew 6:26). He wants them to be like the waterfowl, whose “figure floats along … darkly … on the crimson sky” and yet “vainly the fowler’s eye might mark [its] distant flight to do [it] wrong.” He wants them to believe that “He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler” (Psalm 91: 3).

We want to be in control. Our society values the one who’s “strong and sure, in control, with a plan” (to borrow Anne Murray’s phrase). Consider that, when a VIP visits, his arrival is usually preceded by a “control officer” and the amount of time spent in preparing each step of the visit is in direct ratio to the VI of the P. (Presidential visits are more choreographed than Baryshnikov). And we even have a pejorative term related to this quest for putting “life in a neat little package” – a “control freak.”

Jesus calls that an illusion. With all your worry, with all your “control,” you can’t add a minute to your lifespan (Matthew 12:25). You can’t even count your hairs (Matthew 10:30). So why add the worry and turn them grey?

God wants you to rely on Divine Providence. Jesus, I trust in you!!

OK, that’s nice, and since all Twelve got back safe and sound, even excited at their feats of exorcism, the story had a happy ending. But what does that have to do with me?

In this anniversary year of Humanae vitae, a lot.

Humanae vitae presupposed a lot of things. A certain understanding of the human person. A certain understanding of natural law. A certain understanding of the Church as moral Teacher.

And a certain spirituality. A spirituality of trust in Divine Providence.

The openness to life that Humanae vitae (and Catholicism at large) teaches means several things. It means, first of all, in line with what we say every Sunday, that God—and not me—is “the Lord and Giver of Life.” Life is God’s gift, not a parent’s “project.” God is God and I am not. And, to paraphrase Joyce Kilmer on the centennial of his death: “but only God can make a life.”

But the Giver of Life is not some impersonal biological force, some evolutionary variant on deism who sets up the human reproductive system and then lets it run like clockwork. The Giver of Life is an omniscient, loving God who has plans for each and every life that He calls into existence (Jeremiah 1:15), whom He calls “by name” (Isaiah 43:1). God is not going to hurt you.

And there is where a good part of the problem of contraception lies.

Do we think that life is good or that life just is, its value dependent on its convenience to me? Do we believe that God is the one who gives life – or do we really think that’s a pretty fairy tale, and that we give (or don’t give) life? Do we think that parenthood is part of God’s work of creation – or another pretty story, like Adam and Eve and sneaky snake?

Are we willing to accept the giving of life within our marriage as part of a share with God’s creatureship – a Trinitarian love of husband, wife, and God – or must we be in “control” through birth “control” (as opposed to being in control of our sexual urges?)

Jesus told His Apostles to go out on their journey proclaiming Him as Messiah with nothing. God invites us to set out on the deep of the parental journey proclaiming God as Creator with nothing.

Of course, parenthood will sometimes be inconvenient. Of course, it might mess up our best-laid plans. But, absent God’s omniscience (and His total love for your good) why do you think that your vision of the future is more reliable than His? And what don’t you know?

The new Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, brings a unique perspective to his role: he was a medical doctor before becoming a priest, and he has given the local Church in France an active interest in bioethics. In his writings, he warns about the dangers of a “parental project” (borrowing a notion from French philosophy trying to justify everything Humanae vitae scores). When a child ceases to be a gift and becomes a project, the child becomes a thing – it’s inevitable that the parents (who arrogate to themselves from God what they think is the primacy of creation) then demand the child meet certain expectations or specifications, whether that mean manipulating one’s biology before conception or killing the child before birth.

So, today Jesus is asking parents, “are you ready to set out on the parental journey?” Or do you want a “parental project” that is eerily like what St. John Paul II once called an egoïsme-à-deux?

Do you believe in Providence? Can you call yours the “lesson” William Cullen Bryant learned from a duck 200 years ago this year:

“He who, from zone to zone//Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight//In the long way that I must tread alone//Will lead my steps aright.”