Fulton Sheen and the Outcome of the Sexual Revolution
This topic in particular is one that I’m no stranger to. From the writings of the Theology of the Body Institute to the documentary Unprotected, I’ve been very well informed about the dangers of contraception and abortion. While I was reading through Fulton Sheen’s teachings on the matter though, one line from something else that I’ve read in the past had been echoing in my head. It was a line from the prologue to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible that reads, “When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we shall all be pitied someday” (Miller, 141). What then, does this have to do with contraception and abortion? How does it relate to Sheen? Miller is essentially saying, in the context of the Salem Witch Trials, that future generations were going to reflect on the atrocity of the witch trials and scorn them for doing something so cruel, as we’ve done already. In the context of our situation then, I’m convinced (or at least I hope) that future generations, our own descendants, will look back at abortion and wonder what on earth we were thinking in doing this. Indeed, abortion isour own twentieth century witch trial.
Abortion of course, is one issue subordinate to contraception, and the chapter more wisely addresses the broader issue first. Sheen sums up this issue well in fact, when he says that “planned unparenthood is the deliberate and willful decision on the part a husband and wife to exclude from God the opportunity to create another to His image and likeness” (Zia, 95). The Church has remained firm in teaching that contraception is a misuse of our God-given procreative abilities. Sheen then explains that the more particular reason for contraception’s being evil is that it reduces the marital act, one that allows the love of God to proliferate, is reduced to a mere means of entertainment. A joke is made of it. As Sheen points out as well, “No one strikes at birth who does not simultaneously strike at God, for birth is earth’s reflection of the Son’s eternal generation” (Zia, 99). Later after birth then, children come to be the very lifeblood of a healthy marriage. Children are symbols of Love’s conquest over selfishness and examples of the true mission of marriage being accomplished in the office of motherhood. Now that which I compared to the witch trials finally comes into play. What Sheen has to say about it, however, is a reminder that the birthing process ought to be carried on because all life is sacred. He more brilliantly points out as well that birth control advocates tend toward a materialistic way of thinking, only allowing children to be born if they’re guaranteed a prosperous life full of the worldly pleasures, yet we know already that there’s more to life than that.
The three most intriguing parts of this chapter for me were Sheen’s comments on the degradation of the marital act, the evils of abortion, and additionally, in the section over children, there’s also mention of the issue concerning family size. The difference between the marital act and the simple act of copulation is that while spontaneous “hook-up” sex only involves two, the marital act invites God to work in unison with the two toward the generation of another and to solidify their love both literally and metaphorically. Sheen adds that “This communion demands […] that the ‘language of the body’ be expressed reciprocally in the integral truth of its meaning (Zia, 97). With the rejection of new life, we’ve seen the insult toward children, yet even before children, there’s an insult to the other. The body language of the marital act says to one’s spouse, “I give myself to you in totality, according to my own free will, with faith in God’s plan for marriage, and with openness to the fruitfulness of new human life.” What happens in the contraceptive act is a couple making this promise to each other through body language and then failing to follow up on it, rendering it empty, and one of the very worst promises to be made empty at that. Now some families might be seen by some as a bit too open to the transmission of life, and the Church knows that it’s often necessary for families to regulate their sizes and it’s understandable.
No one family can take care of all the children in the world, and so I believe that when it comes to bearing children, it’s more of a “don’t bite off more than you can chew” kind of deal. Granted, some parents might stop after one for the sake of keeping the family afloat, but the testimony of one anonymous couple says that although the wife believed that they couldn’t take care of anymore children, God would not stop calling them to have another. So while parents may not know how many children they’re capable of taking care of, they most certainly know someone who does. In terms of abortion, prevention of the transmission of life, Sheen says that “the heavenly messenger did not tell Mary that she would conceive a fetus” (Zia, 103). The use of language is important here, abortionists often prefer the term “fetus” over “child” because the word “fetus” has a much more objectified connotation than the word “child” does.
Even a zygote, I’d argue, ought to be called a child because not only do we have the magisterium to defend unborn life, natural philosophy gives a noteworthy contribution and even science has made another stride in favor of the unborn. Science shows that at the very moment of conception, a wave of photons is released resulting in a flash of light around the egg, and natural philosophy tells us that a zygote gains the form of human through the ongoing development of the eventually matured human. From the flash, or the microscopic “let there be light” onward then, that small cluster of cells is a human person.
This, I would also argue, is one of the most important topics when it comes to authentic Christianity. To better know our share of God’s power to bring about life in this world and to better know the true value of the family is to better know God Himself. For the family is the model of God’s very existence as an eternal exchange of love, and so it needs to be defended just like anything sacred. Every marriage and conception needs to be carried out with as much intentionality as possible, and although I had the good fortune of being willingly birthed and delivered, I mourn for those who haven’t. Like them though, I wasn’t conceived on purpose, but rather, I was a “happy accident.”
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Cliffs Notes Inc., 1998.
Zia, Mark. The Enduring Faith and Timeless Truths of Fulton Sheen. Franciscan Media, 2015.
Note: This is essay is written by Joshua Pippert, a writer for Clarifying Catholicism, where this was originally published.
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