Humanae Vitae and the Words of Christ in Scripture

“God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living.  For He fashioned all things that they might have being; and the creatures of the world are wholesome, and there is not a destructive drug among them…”  (From this month’s first liturgical reading, Wisdom 1:13-14).  Hmm….

Today marks the 50th year anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, written by Blessed Pope Paul VI, 1968, about which the U.S. Catholic Bishops state that it “provides beautiful and clear teaching about God’s plan for married love and the transmission of life.”  That it does, including reaffirmation of the Church’s constant and arguably infallible teaching (according to the Ordinary Magisterium, the conditions for infallibility of which are presented in Lumen Gentium 25) concerning its condemnation of abortion, sterilization, and contraception.  In addition, Humanae Vitae foretells that, if the Church’s teaching on contraception is ignored, then we, society, would see the following.  First, widespread contraceptive use will “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.”  Second, men will lose respect for women and treat them selfishly.  Third, widespread contraceptive use will be a dangerous weapon among those public authorities who are unconcerned with moral vision and obligation.  Fourth, increased use of contraception will lead people to think that they have unlimited dominion over their bodies.

Of course, with the exception of couples who reaped the benefits of fidelity to the teachings of Christ’s Church on sexuality (of which Pope Paul VI also spoke), the world—including many in the Church—dismissed the wisdom of Humanae Vitae and plunged more deeply into the darkness of corruption and sin.

“What came to be through Him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:3-4).

So what does the Light of the world, Jesus Christ, have to say about contraception and abortion in Scripture?  Surprisingly to many, and strikingly, some very strong words. Dei Verbum and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (110) assert that to discover in Scripture the sacred author’s intention, “the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture,” among other things.  Perhaps in error in ascertaining these conditions, a common mistranslation in the Bible occurs in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 5:20 and the Book of Revelation 9:21, 18:23, 21:8, and 22:15, in which the word pharmakeia or its cognate is most often rendered sorcery, witchcraft, magic spell, or magic arts.


In the ancient Greco-Roman world—not unlike the Ancient Near East—practicing magic was prevalent.  It involved the use of evil spells, curse tablets, contraceptive and abortive potions (specifically, often herbal drinks, pastes) and, less often, generally deadly poisons (all called pharmakeia), amulets, and love potions.  The contraceptive and abortive potions were numerous and highly demanded; examples were silphium and acacia to contracept, and pennyroyal tea to abort.  Written documentation of contraception and abortion go back to nearly 2,000 B.C.  In Scripture, one example of a sterilized, contraceptive act apart from pharmakeia is in Genesis 38:6-11.

In antiquity, pharmakeia was the Greek word for these potions, and their users typically distinguished between contraceptive and abortive blends, although they both were categorized as pharmakeia.  These were commonly and more effectively used methods to contracept and abort, and so were representative of contraception and abortion in Scripture.  Church Fathers and early ecclesial documents, such as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, also refer to and condemn these anti-fertility practices.

In Scripture, to refer to this as generic magic or sorcery misses the specificity for which pharmakeia was intended.  In the Old Testament, contraception and abortion also were practiced in this way.  In the reading from Wisdom above, the Greek words for “destructive drug” are pharmakon olethru.  This may refer to both deadly poison and abortive potion, since its immediate context refers to the integrity of creation and generation of life, over and against death.  Exodus 22:17, because of its feminine identification and overall context, and Malachi 3:5, because of its context, also are likely references to contraception and abortion, or at least to sorcerous activity (keshef in Hebrew) that includes them.

The immediate context of the above references to Galatians and Revelation was condemnation of common sins that centered around sexual immorality, murder, and idolatry.  Idolatry was frequently associated with temple prostitution and its consequences.  So, in Galatians, Saint Paul condemns acts of sinful nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lewdness, idolatry, pharmakeia, and several more.  The context here, and in the following, does not favor pharmakeia meaning the much less frequented administering of deadly poison to members of the general population, and this overtly homicidal meaning would be particularly redundant on those lists that include murder.  Pharmakeia may have been that broadly intended—referring to contraceptive and abortive potions and occasional administration of poison—but probably meant the former restrictively.  An exception is Revelation 18:23, in which pharmakeia seems to refer specifically and metaphorically to deadly poison.

So, the translation probably should read as follows in Revelation.  Rev 9:21 lists murders, contraceptive and abortive potions (pharmakeion), sexual immorality, and thefts.  In Rev 21:8 and 22:15, the risen Jesus Himself condemns certain representative sins.  Rev 21:8: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the sexually immoral, the ones using contraceptive and abortive potions, the idolators, and all practicing falsehood—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning Sulphur.  This is the second death.”  Rev 22:15: After pronouncing eternal blessing on the righteous (see 22:11 and 22:14), Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, declares, “Outside are the dogs, the ones using contraceptive and abortive potions, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolators, and all who love and practice falsehood.”

Why would Christ condemn contraceptive and abortive potions?  Simply, I think He does so because marriage is a profound, intimate union (Genesis 2:24), procreation is a divine blessing and mandate of this union (Genesis 1:28) for those who are able, children are a gift (e.g., Psalm 127:3), and children in the womb are acknowledged as really alive and sacred (e.g., Psalm 139:13-15, Jeremiah 1:15, Luke:1:39-45).  To deliberately sterilize sex, or worse—murder an unborn child—is a serious offense against God and the human person.  I think Humanae Vitae is just beautifully and boldly echoing the divine and exalted plan for married love and the transmission of human life.


Mark Koehne teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs,

Consent is Not Enough: Harvey Weinstein, Sex, and Human Flourishing

In a breathtakingly rapid turn of events, Harvey Weinstein has gone from being a lionized kingmaker to persona non grata, as woman after woman has come forward with remarkably similar stories of his sexual predations. The common themes are a bathrobe, an erection, and a private room.

The coverage has focused on the sensational details, but we who are following the newsfeed are in danger, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, of having the experience but missing the meaning. The legal concern has been, as it must be, whether the women consented, and Weinstein’s own public statements have zeroed in on this point. While not denying the many liaisons, his spokeswoman Sallie Hofmeister said, “Mr. Weinstein believes that all of these relationships were consensual.” His team then deftly shifts the goalposts on this front, moving from an assertion of consent to the inevitable he-said-she-said battle that they hope this assertion will provoke: “Mr. Weinstein has a different recollection of the events.”

The sheer weight of evidence might steamroll this tactic, but the move itself highlights the problematic nature of the contemporary refuge in consent as the seal of approval for sexual relationships. Consent may be the basic minimum needed for legality, but should we really reduce the good of a relationship to its barebones legal status? Surely we can have a richer understanding of love and relationships than that.

The Default of the Yes

The problem is that, without a sense of a true good in relationships, we don’t know to what we should consent. We are left with an arbitrary act of the will; it is an empty form with no content. The fixation on consent obfuscates larger problems: don’t we have to start to ask what people are consenting to, for the term to have any meaning? And are there cultural conditions necessary for a woman to be able to give consent?

We swim in a culture marked by what Helen Alvaré has called “sexualityism”—the conviction, springing from the sexual revolution, that any sex with anybody is probably a good thing. In this construct, non-procreative sexual expression is a simple necessity intrinsically tied to human fulfillment and personal identity (according to none other than the Supreme Court). This idea was also analyzed and criticized, in a somewhat different way, by Michel Foucault. A culture of sexualityism is not neutral; in it, the good of sexual expression as an end in itself cannot be intellectually challenged. All that is left is the will: do you choose it, or not? Consent carries the day.

If something is a basic human good, it is unreasonable to refuse it. One might consent not to sleep for obscure reasons of one’s own, but the burden of proof would be on the non-sleeper to defend her decision. I call this “the default of the yes”: it is reasonable to choose a good thing, and so it is expected that one will choose it. Thus has the seemingly freedom-friendly principle of the innate goodness of sexual expression become a weapon to attack the persons and institutions who do not agree. The apparent enshrinement of consent actually attacks the very foundations of consent itself: sexualityism puts a thumb on the seemingly impartial scales of choice. As women have observed about the “choice” for abortion, so too here: what begins as a right often turns into a duty.

This is what we see when we peer into Harvey Weinstein’s hotel room. More than one woman stated that Weinstein did not understand the word “no.” It’s probably more accurate to say he did not find the word relevant.

Lucia Stoller Evans, a college student and aspiring actress, told the New Yorkerthat Weinstein arranged a meeting and then forced her to perform oral sex on him. “I said, over and over, ‘I don’t want to do this, stop, don’t. I tried to get away, but maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t want to kick him or fight him.” She added, “I just sort of gave up. That’s the most horrible part of it, and that’s why he’s been able to do this for so long to so many women: people give up, and then they feel like it’s their fault.”

What clearly emerges from the scenes in Harvey Weinstein’s room is that he did not feel defensive. It is the women who feel the onus put on them. Here we see how the burden of the “default of the yes” complicates the matter of consent. Is it consent to dress provocatively? Or to say no, but to give in? Or to keep saying no, but stop short of physical violence? How much refusal outweighs the default of the yes?

This is the web in which Weinstein’s victims find themselves entangled, at the very moment when they need all their wits about them. “The thing with being a victim is I felt responsible,” Asia Argento said. “Because, if I were a strong woman, I would have kicked him in the balls and run away. But I didn’t. And so I felt responsible.” The horror of the assault is compounded by the postmortem self-accusation, which reveals that the default of the yes shifts the moral responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim.

Putting the Burden on Women and Children

One case of a woman who entered Weinstein’s room and at least figuratively “kicked him in the balls” is instructive. French actress Emma de Caunes followed Weinstein up to his hotel room to get a book he said would be the basis of a movie in which she might appear. After disappearing into the bathroom, he emerged naked and erect and told her to lie down, as so many other women had. “I was very petrified,” she told the New Yorker. “But I didn’t want to show him that I was petrified, because I could feel that the more I was freaking out, the more he was excited.” She added, “It was like a hunter with a wild animal. The fear turns him on.” De Caunes said she was leaving. “We haven’t done anything!” she remembered him saying. “It’s like being in a Walt Disney movie!” “I looked at him,” she related, “and I said—it took all my courage, but I said, ‘I’ve always hated Walt Disney movies.’ And then I left. I slammed the door.”

Why did she successfully escape? Certainly, Weinstein misjudged his power by choosing a woman who was not beholden to him for a job; de Caunes, in her thirties, was established as an actress in France and did not need his patronage. Perhaps because of her independence, she exhibited considerable self-possession and a quick wit that enabled her to put her finger on the psychological dynamics operating in Weinstein’s room. By keeping her head and walking out, she did not let herself get to the vulnerable place where she had to defend her no.

We can rejoice that she was so clear-headed in a situation in which women were reduced to pure “fight-or-flight.” But surely it should not be only the strong-minded and smart who are not victimized. As actress/screenwriter Brit Marling put it, “consent is a function of power. You have to have a modicum of power to give it”—or to refuse it. What about the weak and foolish? My daughters will be warned about the danger of networking with male colleagues in hotel bedrooms, and any female on a college campus should learn to avoid the toxic combination of alcohol and naïveté. That said, should their safety be only dependent on their ability to keep their wits about them in exceptionally stressful situations? The burden that the default of the yes places on them is unjust.

This reality raises the obvious, but often ignored, truth that sexualityism’s assumptions place the most burden on women and children. While men are certainly sexually harassed and assaulted, the relative disadvantage—both physical and often cultural—of women in rebuffing men is real and has been exacerbated by the default of the yes. Historically, while institutions such as slavery have normalized extramarital sexual activity, the weight of the culture provided support for most women to say no. As Mark Regnerus has put it, sex was “expensive”—set at the price of marriage, generally. Now sex is cheap, and women are the losers. More: as many of the tragic stories coming out testify, children are the losers too. If the ones who escape unscathed are the savvy and empowered, children by definition are not safe.

The Truth about Sex

What can we learn from this? First, a moral discourse dependent only on consent is insufficient. The web of confusion and guilt that the victims describe—did I refuse enough?—is inevitable if moral action is reduced to X-raying the action of the will. But consent is not an isolated action, distinct from the judgments of the mind concerning what is being chosen. If a grammar of moral good and evil is allowed, then the moral action is not held up by the flimsy support of the will but also buttressed by the intellect: what is truth about sex? This allows for moral responsibility to be shifted from the consent of the victim to the actual choice that the perpetrator made. That is, it enables us to judge that what Harvey Weinstein is accused of is wrong not only because the victimsdid not consent but also and more importantly because of what he chose. In this way, a richer moral vocabulary protects the vulnerable.

Once this richer vocabulary is allowed, the hegemony of the default of yes can be challenged. Not only perpetrators but also sexualityism should be put on trial. Is sexual expression really such an overriding good? If so, what do we make of the women’s unanimous experience of humiliation and anguish in Weinstein’s room? Sexualityism can make no sense of  the reality that sexual crimes reliably cause a trauma that, say, larceny does not.

Sexuality is not simply a matter of something that I have, as though my body is another possession just like my wallet or my car. If, as Gabriel Marcel said, I ammy body, then sexuality has to do with my very person, which has a deep value. To use the language of Pope John Paul II, when a person is reduced to being merely an object for another’s desire, then the experience violates the core of one’s sense of self.

Sexualityism attempts to demystify sexual relationships by making them a simple matter of scratching a perennial itch. It’s the hook-up myth: partners should be able to have sex and not care in the morning, as though what they did the night before was no more intimate than eating from the same buffet line—we are just meeting a need, you know? By ignoring the personal values at stake, sexualityism presents a false picture of sex that empties it of vulnerability. But that was emphatically not the experience of the women in Weinstein’s room, who unanimously related the vulnerability they felt, as if their very persons were endangered.

If sex makes one vulnerable to another person, then it must be more than the single-minded pursuit of pleasure, that idol of sexualityism, for surely pleasure can be jointly pursued without any vulnerability. The gulf between Weinstein and the women in his room is marked on this point: none of the latter use the word “pleasure” to talk about the dynamics in that room, whereas one suspects he would use it freely.

Pleasure is something you get out of a situation; it is something you take. The experience of the women indicates that sex should rather be something you freely give, precisely because it deeply implicates the person. John Paul II would have known how to make sense of their experience, because he recognized that, ultimately, sex cannot consist merely of the pursuit of pleasure but is the intimate self-gift of one to another. Sex reliably expresses this personal self-gift, which is why it is such a violation when something that should only be a free gift is stolen by force.

Perhaps, because of the accumulated testimony to such horror, Hollywood’s long-overdue moral reckoning has indeed come. Let us hope so. At the very least, let us not lose the opportunity to expose not only the brutal acts but also the ideology behind them.

Angela Franks teaches theology at Saint Jospeh’s College Online.

This essay originally appeared at Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good and is reprinted with permission.

Rights, duties, and freedom

Carol Reed’s classic film The Third Man, based on a story by Graham Greene, takes place in post-war Vienna where Harry Lime is operating a criminal scheme involving tainted medicine. Lime kills sick people for money.

Money. We all need it, some of us have enough of it, and many don’t. Franklin Roosevelt wanted America to recognize that, beyond the basics enumerated in the Bill of Rights, human beings also have the right to a decent home, security in old age and sickness, and the right to health care and an education. In other words, one’s civil rights need to be augmented by economic rights. Roosevelt’s New Deal was influenced by Father John Ryan, whose tireless efforts for working men and women stands today as an important milestone in the American Catholic social justice tradition. Pope Pius XI recognized his contribution by making him a domestic prelate (a sort of honorary bishop).

But where there are rights, there must also be duties. Your right is my obligation to respect and, according to my situation, provide for that right, and vice versa. My taxes, for example, help pay for Medicaid. Politicians devoted to the individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand disagree and want to reduce the scope of rights, in the famous phrase of Thomas Hobbes, simply to freedom from force and fraud. As for economic security, you’re on your own.

The Christian social justice tradition, however, holds that without a minimum of financial resources, one is inevitably the victim of force. Those who view social justice merely as the freedom of the individual from constraints, with no duty to support the common good, are not that different from Harry Lime, who cheated sick patients out of wholesome medicine to enrich himself. Harry Lime took the direct and illegal route to riches by diluting medicine; today, it is more common to find corporate plunder occurring through legal channels (see, for example, the BBC report, “Pharmaceutical industry gets high on fat profits”.

We are still trying to figure out how society can fairly distribute its wealth so that everyone’s freedom will be enhanced. Movie producers put up an investment so that the artists and laborers can be paid for the work they do. Alexander Korda was the producer for The Third Man and the great showman Orson Welles played the villain Harry Lime. The tension between the artists and laborers who make the film, and the producers who supply the funds is, of course, legendary. Producers want their investment to make money for them while the artists want the financial freedom to create. On the set of Reed’s film, this tension evoked a bon mot from Welles, who told Korda, “I wish the Pope had made you a Cardinal.” “Why is that?” Korda asked. “Because then we would only have to kiss your ring,” Welles answered.

There is a sense in which every human being is a creative artist, intended by God to make something of himself or herself, according to the gifts and circumstances of life. Everyone, therefore, needs the financial basics to achieve the creation that is one’s authentic self, free not only from force and fraud, but from poverty, homelessness and preventable illness. Our kiss should be that of genuinely free men and women.

David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Living a Good Life and Seeking a Good Death


In the final post in our series on the Mystery of Death, we reflect on how our earthly pilgrimage prepares us for death. 


For many of us the last year will go down as one of the worst in recent memory. A contentious election cycle (the ripple effects of which are still being felt) left most Americans with a sour stomach. But as tough as all that was, for many the year was particularly upsetting for one reason: 2016 was “The Year That Killed (almost) Everybody.” Not really, of course. People die every year – every day, in fact. But last year a lot well-known people died at what seemed like an alarming rate. Thanks to social media, the news of every one of those deaths was immediate and ubiquitous. Suddenly our own mortality seemed as close as our Facebook feed. Much was written about the silliness of “mourning” celebrities, ridiculing the idea that 2016 was somehow “cursed,” and “stealing” celebrities away from us. In hindsight, I think the whole conversation missed the point. Death is a reality none can escape, and in a world where news is shared in seconds, it’s not a matter of suddenly soaring numbers, but of our increased awareness that this life doesn’t last forever.

The “celebrity death” that most impacted me kicked off last year’s mythical “trend.” On the morning of January 11, I awoke to the news that singer David Bowie had passed away the day before, following a private battle with cancer. The news left me strangely shaken. Bowie had been my companion through years of teen angst, college coming of age, and independence-seeking young adulthood. His music was the soundtrack for a large segment of my life, and even as my tastes evolved and I moved from “fangirl” to appreciating a wider musical landscape, Bowie was always in the background. Wherever I was in my life, in whatever season or circumstance, if a Bowie song turned up on the radio I put on my red shoes and danced the blues, without missing a beat. Like an old friend not often heard from, but always kept in one’s heart, David Bowie and his music were just always there. Until, he wasn’t.

On December 10, 2013, my mom, Dolores, passed away in the hospital. She didn’t have what you’d call a “good death,” in that she was in some distress at the end. Details aren’t necessary, mostly because three years haven’t eased the pain or erased the memory of that evening. I’m not naïve to the fact that suffering is part of life, and too often an aspect of the dying process. Still, watching someone you love suffer is hard, and it’s okay to admit that and to feel it. To dwell on it, though, disturbs one’s mental and spiritual peace, and gets in the way of the good memories and the love we continue to have for those who’ve passed. Bingeing on thoughts about that suffering, having regrets, and second-guessing one’s participation in the dying process (Was I truly present at the end? Could I have done something to prevent the suffering – or even the inevitable?) leads us away from experiencing the death of a loved one – and Christ’s presence in this experience – in a truly Christian way.

This post isn’t about a rock star, or “the year that killed people,” or even my mom. It’s about living a good life that puts death in the proper perspective. It feels strange to say it, but David Bowie’s death exactly two years and one month after my mom’s put me in touch with the reality of the Communion of Saints in ways I never expected. Bowie indulged in all the excesses a rock n’ roll lifestyle affords (quite a different one from my cradle-Catholic mom), until he “settled down” in the last 25-30 years of his life. His music was provocative, sometimes incomprehensible, but always infused with a sense of the Supernatural. Bowie sought God in his music, but I think his search was fraught with obstacles – many of his own making. How his search ended on that Sunday in January, I don’t know. I pray for him every day, though, as I pray for my mom and so many other souls who have passed. Taken together, I think that reflecting on the “God-haunted” life of a stranger, and the “God-seeking” (as imperfect as it often was) of my own mother awakened in me a new urgency to live a Christ-centered life, while hoping for a Christ-centered death – for myself and for others.

We shouldn’t dwell on death in a morbid way that consumes us, frightens us, or becomes obsessive. God wants us to live a good life (striving toward virtue, avoiding sin, and being in right relationship with Him and our neighbors), while being mindful that this life is not our ultimate end. God wants us to live a good life, and hope and pray for a good death.  That seems like a contradiction, but it recognizes that this life is a journey, not a destination. Our lives should reflect our hope for an experience of death that leads us to the joy of Heaven. A good death isn’t simply (or exclusively) one free of pain – though that’s a worthy prayer! A good death (for the Catholic/Orthodox Christian) affords us the Sacrament of the Sick, receiving the grace and comfort needed for passage into new life. A good death offers the opportunity to “make our peace” with loved ones, say our goodbyes, and allow family and friends to be with us. A good death is one in which we are mindful of the nearness of the Lord, so that when He calls to us, we will have the grace to respond, “Yes, Lord!”. We should hope and pray that we, and those we love, experience peace and comfort, lack fear, and gratefully anticipate the warm embrace of our Father when it is time for us to go.

Having a good death isn’t just about the dying process and the moment of death. As believers in the Communion of Saints, we know that the souls of those who’ve died continue to need our help as they are purified by God. Through prayer, sacrifice, and celebration of the Liturgy we commend to God’s mercy the souls of all those who have died, both the saintly and the committed sinner. The death of David Bowie convicted me of the necessity to pray especially for those who didn’t know God, lost faith in Him, doubted or even rejected Him. As I said earlier, I don’t know the state of Bowie’s soul at the end. But I pray with confidence that the God who isn’t limited by time hears my plea for a flood of Divine Mercy to be poured into the souls of all His departed (even if doubting) children, that they would recognize the Lord’s voice and embrace His mercy. This is what God asks of me and of you: to pray, trust in His mercy and have hope.

Praying for the souls of those who have died is good (and necessary) for them – but it’s also good for us. It reminds us that they’re gone from our sight, but not gone forever. Prayer keeps them close to us, in our minds, in our hearts, and on our lips as we speak their names to the Father of Mercy. Praying for the dead helps us maintain a healthy outlook on death as that mysterious, scary, but inevitable doorway to Life. The Communion of Saints – those of us praying through our pilgrimage here on earth, and the saints already in Heaven – are the family of God, and our prayers are joined together in praise and petition. Thus, praying for the dead draws us more closely together as a family.

Death shouldn’t be a morbid obsession, but a reminder that this life is a pilgrimage, and death the last signpost before reaching our destination. Instead paralyzing us with fear, death should shape how we live our lives. Mortality needn’t be a cloud over our heads, but should move us toward a deeper our relationship with God. Our lives should be an invitation for others to experience the joy of loving and being loved by Him. Therefore, as urgent as it is for us to pray for those who have died, we must also pray for the living who don’t know God, who doubt Him, or who are so wounded and hurt (for whatever reason) that they turn away from Him. When the opportunity presents itself – and the Spirit moves us – we may share our experience of God’s love with them. But when it’s not possible – or prudent – to explicitly share the Gospel, we should fervently pray that God will soften hearts, heal wounds, open minds, and rain down His mercy on them, and all of us.

A rock star, a mom, a torrent of celebrity deaths, a year that seemed to have been orchestrated by the Grim Reaper himself, and the mercy of God at the end of this life. I’ll admit this is an odd mix of thoughts for considering living a good life, and having a good death. But God meets each one of us where we are, in our pain and in our joy; in fond memories of a loving mother…and in our Spotify playlists. God speaks to us of His abundant mercy and love in the suffering of our dear ones, and in the song that cries out for a sign that He is real. I pray every day for the soul of my mother, because I love her still and I want her to rest close to the heart of the Lord she remained faithful to until the end. I pray, too, for the rock icon who touched me so deeply with his art, and stirred in my heart the hope that he – and many others among my own family and friends who’s hearts somehow grew cold with doubt – experienced a flood of warm and healing Mercy. I pray that I’ll live my life a little bit better every day – more Christ-centered, more loving and merciful. I pray that each day I’ll be more mindful that while death is no picnic, it is the means by which Christ to leads us to the Feast of the Lamb. Let’s pray for the souls who have gone before us, for ourselves, and for each other. And let’s do our best to live a good life, and ask God for the gift of a good and holy death.


O Lord, I am the image of Your glory * which is beyond description, * even though I bear the marks of transgressions. * Have mercy on Your creature. * O Master, in Your compassion cleanse me. * Grant me the home I yearn for, * and again make me an inhabitant of paradise.

~From “Great Panachida, Office of Christian Burial (according to the Byzantine Rite) in the Church.” Prayer of the Deceased.

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.

Times, They are a-Changing!

Yes, this is the weekend that we turn the clocks back one hour; moving to standard time. Hopefully you took advantage of an extra hour of sleep today – Yea! As a society though, are times really a-changing, as Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan would say?

If we were to listen to the secular pundits, then, yes, the times are really a-changing. We times-are-changingare becoming a progressive society, having removed discussion of God from public discourse, along with embracing moral relativism; discounting the moral truths set forth by God in the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the teachings of Christ. Examples of how we have embraced moral relativism can be seen in society’s overwhelming acceptance of same-sex marriage, abortion rights, euthanasia, and co-habitation outside of marriage. All of these things go against God’s Natural Law. Society is swiftly embracing these sins as the accepted norm. It’s called “entering the 21st century!” We’re told that we need to “get with the program.” People easily engage in this sinful behavior because “it feels right;” yet what they are really doing is ignoring the error-free advice of the Holy Spirit, who would tell them otherwise.

Proponents of moral relativism argue that the moral actions can be judged from a purely subjective perspective. This is a way of stating that moral standards are determined by personal dispositions and circumstances, and that the natural law no longer should serve as the ultimate litmus test for human behavior. This method of determining the morality of human actions leads to a situation in which each individual determines what he or she feels is right, justifying contrary notions as compatabile.1

Perhaps this is the cause for why we, as a country, are so divided as we enter the polling booths this Tuesday. As a society, we have lost our moral compass; we’ve discarded our “litmus test for human behavior.” Fifty years ago it was totally unacceptable to consider a candidate, for the office of President of the United States, who would consider an abortion or same-sex marriage as appropriate and acceptable. Today, we embrace such positions in the Democratic candidate for President. Twenty years ago, we deemed it totally unacceptable for the President of the United States to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage. In fact, when he lied about the matter, we impeached him for such action. Today, we look the other way as the Republican candidate has been accused of similar behavior toward women.

Yes, times they are a-changing; yet can we actually say that we are a more morally upright society twenty or fifty years later? No, we cannot.

Although times are a-changing, Christ’s moral truths do not change. What God declared as good is good for all time. What God declared as evil is evil for all time. God’s opinion does not need to change because God, with all of His Wisdom, is perfect. So, who, or what, then needs to change? We do! We need to move toward Christ and away from sin. We need to embrace God’s Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and Christ’s teaching. We need to find our moral compass once again. We need to reapply the Natural Law as our ultimate litmus test for human behavior and discard moral relativism. This is a tall order, but one we must undertake with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. It all starts within each one of us assessing our own actions, in accordance with God’s Natural Law, for He infused within each of us, at birth, the ability to know right from wrong. Now all you need to do, is what you know to be right, in God’s eyes.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at

1 Armenio, Peter V. Our Moral Life in Christ, College Edition. Woodridge: Midwest Theological Forum, Print, 2009, p. 177.

The Goodness, Beauty, and Power of Biological Sex

In today’s Second Reading, Revelation 1:9-11A, 12-13, 17-19, the risen Lord Jesus presents himself “like a son of man.”  His eternal power, extolled by John in Revelation 1:6, and striking and dramatic physical features overwhelm John (v.17).  Jesus’ physicality is palpable not only in our Second Reading but also in the Gospel, John 20:19-31, in which Jesus shows his Apostles his hands and his side, and later tells Thomas to put his finger on the wounds on his hands and place his hand into his side.  Jesus’s risen Body is quite real.  His identity—including that of his biological sex—is the same, only his risen Body is glorified.  Jesus was conceived a biological male (e.g., Luke 1:31), died a biological male, and rose as one as well.  The same continuum is true of the Blessed Virgin Mary: she came into the world as a biological female, and she was assumed into heaven as one also.

When God created our first parents on the sixth day, he created them male and female.  At the end of this day, he not only found that all he created was “good,” as in previous days, but “very good” (tov me’ohd’) (Genesis 1:27, 31). Our biological sexuality is sacred to God—it is a very good, beautiful, powerful gift.  With this gift, through our holy bodies, we can image Trinitarian love physically in the marital embrace, or symbolically by our self-giving love to God and neighbor that mirrors the faithful love between Christ and his spouse, the Church.  We also can incarnate marital love physically by “being fruitful and multiplying,” or symbolically by transmitting, protecting, and nourishing the Word of God in people’s lives by word and deed.

Tragically, in today’s world, contaminated by an ever-growing cancer—the culture of 538px-man-and-woman-iconsvgcorruption and death—we have forgotten the simple biological lesson and yet mystery of the “birds and the bees” applied to human sexuality.  We no longer remember the purpose of sexuality, so easily and well-articulated in natural law and God’s revelation.  A symptom of our cultural amnesia, ignorance, and moral dysfunction is our acceptance, approval, and advancement of transgenderism.  This is an obvious consequence of the nominalistic priority enshrining the act of choice over and against nature and reason, as well its consequent reduction of sexual activity to mere pleasure, in whatever disordered way.

Yet transgenderism is not simply the outgrowth of a bankrupt philosophical trend, but also often reflects a serious underlying disorder, gender dysphoria.  Men and women and boys and girls identifying as the opposite sex or in flux between the two sexes need real, compassionate help, not support or encouragement in “feeling like” or impersonating the opposite sex.  Of course, lest we condescend and forget our own disorders and frailties, we must view someone struggling in this way first and foremost as a person of lofty dignity, a human being made in the image of God and redeemed by Christ’s Blood.

We also must respect the most unbiased medical studies and other studies in health that advance our understanding of this issue.  For example, concerning sex reassignment surgery, the University of Birmingham’s review of more than one hundred international medical studies of post-operative transsexuals shows there is no scientific evidence that surgery is effective as a treatment to improve their lives, with many of them left critically distressed and suicidal post-op.  In a renowned study published in 2011, “Long-Term Follow-up of Transsexual Persons Undergoing Sex Reassignment Surgery: A Cohort Study in Sweden,” considerably higher mortality rate, suicidal behavior, and psychiatric morbidity than the general population characterized these results.

Just last month, the American College of Pediatricians published a statement urging “educators and legislators to reject all policies that condition children to accept as normal a life of chemical and surgical impersonation of the opposite sex.  Facts—not ideology—determine reality” (  I encourage you to read the entire statement.  Also, check out  The ACP highlighted the following points:

  1. Human sexuality is an objective binary trait: “XY” and “XX” are genetic markers of health—not genetic markers of a disorder.
  1. No one is born with a gender. Everyone is born with a biological sex.  Gender (an awareness and sense of oneself as male or female) is a sociological and psychological concept, not an objective, biological one.
  1. A person’s belief that he or she is something they are not is, at best, a sign of confused thinking.
  1. Puberty is not a disease and puberty-blocking hormones can be dangerous.
  1. According to the DSM-V, as many as 98% of gender confused boys and 88% of gender confused girls eventually accept their biological sex after naturally passing through puberty.
  1. Children who use puberty blockers to impersonate the opposite sex will require cross-sex hormones in late adolescence. Cross-sex hormones are associated with dangerous health risks including but not limited to high blood pressure, blood clots, stroke, and cancer.
  1. Rates of suicide are twenty times greater among adults who use cross-sex hormones and undergo sex reassignment surgery, even in Sweden which is among the most LGBQT-affirming countries.
  1. Conditioning children into believing a lifetime of chemical and surgical impersonation of the opposite sex is normal and healthful is child abuse.

God made no mistake in assigning each of us a biological sex.  Rejecting this divinely-bestowed identity and assignment is rejecting a very good, beautiful, and powerful gift. In addition, when this rejection includes bodily harm and mutilation, we violate the moral law (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2297) and further harm ourselves and offend God.

If we care about our transgender brothers and sisters, and about the greatness, beauty, and power God has bestowed upon us through our gift of biological sex, we will by God’s grace—even in our fallen world—generate the compassion, courage, and persistence to advance chastity, personal integrity, and God’s honor as the Great Designer—to the end!

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.





Biblical Wisdom and the Problem of Physician Assisted Suicide

The practice of physician assisted suicide assumes that we may use the power of medical technology to end suffering by ending a life.  Of course we use medicine to end suffering, for that is its purpose, but the difficulty lies how we use the power of technology. Physician assisted suicide expresses an ethos about how we handle the power to end life, a difficulty with which humanity has surely struggled from the beginning, but one which modern medical technology appears to simplify through scientific precision (a sedative and a lethal drug) and professional practice (a legal medical procedure for assisting suicide). This combination appears to provide a peaceful “final exit.”

But the Christian understanding of suffering should temper the impulse for assisted suicide. In Salvifici Doloris, Pope John Paul II recalls Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus in John 3:1-21 to illustrate that, in the Christian tradition, confronting suffering ultimately has the meaning of overcoming sin and expressing love. In the biblical story, Jesus teaches Nicodemus that Jesus’s suffering will bring eternal life like “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” (Jn 3:14). Jesus overcomes human sinfulness by confronting death, as Moses risked death by lifting a serpent by the tail. Like the serpent, sin brings the risk of harm and death. Like Moses, Jesus’ willingness to place himself between the forces of good and evil demonstrates the kind of love capable of revealing the meaning of suffering.

In Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II focuses on the verse illustrating this love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) With these words, Jesus seeks to temper Nicodemus’ enthusiasm for the divine power that Nicodemus recognizes in Jesus. Notice that Nicodemus is attracted by Jesus’ power: “these signs that you do.” (3:2) But Jesus teaches that there is “condemnation” (3:17-18) in this power when it is used for anything other than salvation, “deeds wrought in God” (3:21).nicodemus

Divine power is ultimately directed to overcome sinfulness and unite each human being with God. Limited in his vision, Nicodemus imagines only worldly uses for every power. When Jesus teaches Nicodemus that “one must be born again to enter the kingdom of God,” Nicodemus does not comprehend the forgiveness of sin in baptism. Rather, he immediately, or perhaps facetiously, thinks of returning to the womb. The Pharisee’s response displays a vision limited to the actions that humans, rather than God, perform. Thus it seems more accurate to read Jesus’ condemnation here as a warning, perhaps exaggerated for effect, of Nicodemus’ attachment to powerful human works. It is the same kind of exaggerated warning that Jesus gives Peter–“get behind me, Satan!”–when the latter insists that Jesus employ his power to avoid suffering. Jesus tries to turn the minds and hearts of Peter and Nicodemus away from the power of earthly means to eliminate suffering and toward the salvific power of suffering to overcome sin.

The power of modern medicine has presented us with a new form of the ancient dilemma over how to direct human power to end life. The Christian understanding of suffering offers us a reason to limit that power.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Aging, Sick, and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Joy and Suffering: Living with ALS

Worth Revisiting Wednesday! This post originally appeared on July 27, 2014.

In January 2011 I was giving a presentation on bioethics at my parish, and just after the presentation started a man hobbled in on a cane. A few months later I was giving another presentation on the same topic, and a man entered the room in a motorized wheelchair. I puzzled for a few moments because it looked like the same man. As I continued with the presentation I realized that it was indeed the same man. It was rather unnerving to be able-bodied, in good health, and speaking about ethical issues so closely related to the suffering of the sick, while this man, who was clearly suffering from a debilitating disease, was there listening intensely. I couldn’t help wondering what it was like to be grappling with these issues “from the inside”—so to speak.

Marty and I met soon afterwards. We discussed our common interests and goals: we were both striving to be good husbands and fathers. Marty recounted stories of work and play around the horse farm where he and his family live. He spoke about arranging horse jumps for his daughter Cecilia, clearing brush from the woods behind the house, laying up firewood for the winter, cleaning out the horses’ stalls, and myriad other chores. In our discussions about bioethics he drew upon his medical expertise, built up over eleven years as a successful, interventional radiologist.

Marty was also interested in my literary and theological background. He asked me to read the rudiments of his spiritual autobiography. I asked questions that prompted him to think more deeply about the meaning of the joys and sufferings he was experiencing. At times I felt as though I was giving him “work” to replace the professional life lost to ALS. And what a “worker” he has been! His spiritual autobiography, Joy and Suffering: My Life with ALS,was dictated through an iPhone into emails, initially, and then into a document that was edited by Christian Tappe of St. Benedict Press.


Photo of D’Amore Family at Lou Gehrig’s Disease – ALS website

In many ways, Marty is a typical American guy, but there is definitely something special about him. He is inspired by the meaningful lives other people lead, for example, by the doctors who first showed him the beauty of a medical career and motivated him to pursue it. He has been given given plenty of natural intelligence and talent, and as a young man he struggled to discover and develop himself. He worked hard at his profession, marveled at the good he could do with it, and reaped its rewards. He has been wildly successful—by American standards—in his profession, family, and lifestyle.

More importantly, Marty demonstrates a kind of spiritual excellence. Not the spiritual excellence of the great ascetics of history, who master temptation with an iron will honed through self-denial. Rather the spiritual excellence of one who has prayed with a child’s trust for a good life, lost himself in the confusion of growing up, found the way his talents could lead to success, and finally, as he achieved success, recognized something missing even before detecting the first symptoms of ALS. ALS focused his heart and mind on another kind of success: developing spiritual maturity. By slowly eliminating his physical mobility, ALS forced Marty to find new ways to love his wife, children, and friends. His book offers Marty’s explanation of what he has learned in the hope that his family can discover, with him, some joy within the tragedy that has befallen them all.

Spiritual conversion is the stuff of great literature and epic poetry, but we are not usually given the privilege of a guided tour of this process unfolding in the lives of our neighbors and friends. We all change profoundly as we move through life, and know that our neighbors change in similar ways, but rarely do we get the opportunity to understand that change from the inside. In Joy and Suffering: My Life With ALS, Marty describes the experience of suffering with ALS, depicting not only the intricacies of the disease but also the hard-won meaning of the suffering it has brought him and his family.

This blog post was adapted from the Foreword to the book Joy and Suffering: My Life with ALS by Martin J. D’Amore.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry with the Aging, Sick, and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Update: Marty D’Amore died on January 28, 2015 surrounded by friends and family.  He was laid to rest in Belmont Abbey monastery cemetery, a few 100 yards from the chapel where he often prayed.


The Elderly and Laudato Si

In his encyclical released this past week, Laudato Si, Pope Francis calls for “justice between generations,” by which he means frank, honest discussion and action about “the kind of world we are leaving to future generations.” This discussion requires a “struggle with … deeper issues,” and the pope raises the issue of how consumer lifestyles are reflected in environmental degradation. He also asks, even more importantly, now this lifestyle affects the moral character of society.

The pope’s words imply an important role for the elderly in wealthy societies. The elderly of today’s industrialized societies have lived in a period of astounding economic growth, and many of them have accumulated substantial wealth. The industries they have built have both increased pollution and have developed powerful means to clean up that pollution. Reflecting upon their lives and historical era, the elderly today must have something to say about the issues raised in Laudato Si and confronting every society in the world today.

For example, what are the most important values? Presuming that financial security is an

St. Jeanne Jugan, Foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor and a patron saint of the elderly

St. Jeanne Jugan, Foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor and a patron saint of the elderly

important, but not the most important value, how does a family acquire and manage whatever wealth it has, in order to live both comfortably and generously down the generations of a family line? How do its members enjoy the fruits of God’s providence without becoming blind to the material and spiritual poverty of those in their own society and in other parts of the world? How do they place the needs of the poor before their own desires?

In order to begin reflecting upon their lives, the elderly in industrialized societies today might look at Pope Saint John Paul II’s “Letter to the Elderly” (1999). It is a difficult read in places, so I will point out some of the highlights.

In this letter, John Paul II looked back over his life in order to discern its meaning and place his life’s meaning in relation to God. In the second paragraph of the letter John Paul II writes “in my memory I recall the stages of my life, which is bound up with the history of much of this [the 20th] century, and I see before me the faces of countless people, some particularly dear to me: they remind me of ordinary and extraordinary events, and happy times and of situations touched by suffering” (1). The words “bound up with a history of much of this century” are all the more striking when one considers the pope’s role in world events such as the collapse of communism and in the Church’s response to modern secular culture. At the same time, the pope’s words reflect an investment of the heart in those whom he has touched and the vulnerability to the loss of friends and loneliness. Finally, this recollection becomes an occasion to recognize that his life has been part of God’s plan and to thank God for all his gifts.

The pope points out the advantages of age. Writing in a conversational tone to his fellow elderly people, he notes that their “retrospective gaze makes possible a more serene and objective evaluation of persons and situations we have met along the way. The passage of time helps us to see our experiences in a clearer light and softens their painful side ” (2, emphasis added) For this reason the elderly are “guardians of shared memory” and “the privileged interpreters of that body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society” (10).

The pope also offers moral and theological principles necessary for grasping the meanings of one’s life and of the history of one’s own time in relation to God’s love and God’s plan. For example, in reviewing one’s life and the history of one’s own time, it is important to look for how God and man bring good from evil: “Like so many other times in history, our own has registered lights and shadows. Not all has been bleak. Many positive aspects have counterbalanced the negative, or have emerged from the negative has a beneficial reaction on the part of the collective consciousness” (3).

The pope acknowledges the hard lessons of the past. For example, he reminds us that “it would be both unjust and dangerous to forget… that unprecedented sufferings have affected the lives of millions and millions of people [as in World War II]” (3). He values the “blunt realism” that comes with age, and is reflected in the biblical proverb “all is vanity” (6; quoting Ecclesiastes 1:2). For him, this blunt realism is part of scripture’s overall “positive vision of the value of life” and its history of great deeds performed by God working through human beings, including the elderly.

Sixteen years after the “Letter to the Elderly,” Pope Francis asks the Church and the world for a dialogue about how to develop an integral ecology that lifts the poor from poverty without destroying the environment. The elderly in industrialized societies, which have both fostered economic growth and attempted to address the environmental problems it has causes, should make a contribution to this dialogue an important part of their legacy.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Aging, Sick and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Protecting, Respecting, and Cherishing the Union of the Marital Act

Today’s readings (Isaiah 7:10-14, 8:10; Psalm 40:7-11; Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38) of the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord prophesy and highlight Mary of Nazareth’s virginal self-giving love in her fiat or “yes” to God. Would Mary consent to be the Mother of the Son of God Incarnate? She responds to the angel Gabriel, “Be it done unto me according to your word.” (The first part of this response is almost identical to Jesus’ fiat in His agony in the garden, as well as the centerpiece of the Our Father, “Your will be done.”) The Virgin Mary’s unconditional and profoundly obedient love of God informs her fiat. Mary’s sexuality, and therefore her motherhood, embrace her affirmation to love God in return.

In today’s world, social decline in faith, virtue, and family stability, among other reasons, have weakened the concept and exercise of “commitment,” so clearly embodied by the Virgin Mary. To “commit” to something, for many, seems too difficult, almost archaic, especially in reference to something other-centered. This is true, for example, concerning marriage. Do most couples, when exchanging marriage vows at their wedding, seriously intend faithful commitment for better or worse until death? Do they understand the meaning of a vow, and are they dedicated to spousal love “no matter what?” Total, self-giving commitment to another in marriage is slowly (or not so slowly) becoming culturally anomalous, if not anachronistic. This is not surprising since commitment to God—the foundation of all other just and loving commitments—is a notion slowly receding into oblivion in our collective, cultural mindset. Without commitment to God, universal truths, and absolute moral norms, relativism spawns, multiplies, and destroys soul and society. In Scripture, God warns us about this contagion, such as corrupting the absolute character of the Decalogue, the Commandments of love (e.g., Isiah 5:20-24; Torah in v.24 is an Isaian reference to the Decalogue).

By disuse and even wholesale rejection of virtue—the greatest of which is love of God—our culture has atrophied in wisdom and moral character and no longer recognizes the purpose of sexuality. We, the people, by and large, view sexual activity as a multi-method approach of obtaining orgasmic pleasure. This is no overstatement—our pervasive and long-standing contraceptive mentality and practice, cohabitation, seduction into the multi-billion dollar pornography enterprise, and political and legislative eradication of the meaning of marriage (in favor of formalized consensual license to engage in sexual activity), reflect our true colors.

In the order of nature, sexual activity—elicited by sexual desire—is oriented toward union of bodily persons. Self-giving, marital love is God’s signature design of this union. To effect it, four conditions must be met.  First, the union must be willed. Second, it must be complementary of one man to one woman to create the union. Third, it must be faithful because of its profound intimacy. Fourth, it must be respectful of the life-giving act of lovemaking, and therefore be open to life, i.e., must not sterilize lovemaking because of its reproductive character. This procreative dimension—the reproductive character—is an intrinsic aspect of conjugal union. A denial of the procreative, fruitful dimension of the conjugal act is a denial of its union. A partial, but not total self-gift in lovemaking contradicts the complete gift of self expressed in the body language of love, so well-illustrated by St. Pope John Paul the Great’s theology of the body.

Among proponents of the oxymoron, “gay marriage,” some argue that the Catholic Church’s teaching of procreation as a fundamental good of marriage is erroneous because elderly married couples would cease to be married, or elderly couples could not marry because of their inability to procreate. However—as (most) everyone knows—a married couple does not conceive a child each time they make love! Marital union does embody a reproductive character: to denigrate this character denigrates the sacred union.

The Virgin Mary’s courageous, unwavering fiat must be ours, as well. Our undying commitment and loyalty to God embraces all of His will, including those facets most countercultural, such as respect for the marital act. Let us imitate Mary, and serve God faithfully, bravely, chastely. By doing so, we will live with integrity. In addition—God willing—we will serve as an example for others to follow, stimulate personal and social growth in virtue, and thereby reclaim and even advance the grace and teaching of Christ. “Though grass withers…the Word of our God stands forever!” (Isaiah 40:8).

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.