Wisdom of the popes helps us find creative ways to inspire our culture to choose life, family

I’ve seen the power of creative minorities before. And by “minorities,” I am not referring strictly to smaller numbers. I mean small in others’ regard, and in apparent influence.

I will never forget the late 1980s to early ’90s. To be in favor of the rights of the unborn was to be ridiculed. Female pro-lifers were told that they did not care for women, in any sense of the word.  The movement calling itself “pro-choice” claimed that “freedom” was constituted by the ability to choose anything at all, including denial of the obvious. This view manifested itself in pro-choice language: The unborn were “tissue” and “potential human life.” When I interviewed with reporters, dragging along an Ivy League medical embryology textbook, they dismissed my conclusions as irrational or religious beliefs.

Today, similar thoughtlessness characterizes the refusal to acknowledge the importance of the natural family. Those who ignore the natural family often say that there is nothing remarkable about two sexes whose union produces all life. They emphasize that the freedom to have sexual relations with anyone, anytime, is really the core of life’s happiness. At the same time, they reject the significance of any casual sexual encounter, claiming that it doesn’t affect a person’s mind, emotions or spirit in any lasting way. They deny the intrinsically demeaning message of cohabitation: “I’ll sleep with you, but this doesn’t mean that I’m interested in your future or your total person.”

The pro-life movement transcended the senseless notions animating legal abortion with new forms of outreach. It provided distressed, pregnant mothers thousands of places to turn to for help both tangible and spiritual, and invented a welcoming and transformative process for post-abortive women. The movement reached women with billboards, radio programs and television ads reflecting what post-abortive women reported: “Something inside me died the day I had my abortion.” “Women deserve better.” The movement brought alive the words of novelist Walker Percy when abortion rights held sway: “According to the opinion polls, it looks as if you may get your way. But you’re not going to have it both ways. You’re going to be told what you’re doing.”

Like the pro-life movement, the movement for rebirth of the family shows increasing signs of its creative potential — uplifted, I believe, by our three most recent popes. For so long now, the union of man and woman was as notable as the wallpaper in our living rooms. It was the framework of our individual lives and our communities. Small wonder it did not elicit passionate defenses. But then, around the time abortion was legalized, IVF babies were on the horizon, no-fault divorce had swept the country, extramarital births were soaring and AIDS was killing thousands, Pope St. John Paul II was moved by the Holy Spirit to begin sharing his reflections on the meaning of man and woman, sex, marriage and parenting. Phrases we had heard all our lives — about our being “in God’s image” and “naked but not ashamed” at the beginning and suffering “his and hers” versions of original sin — were unpacked so that we could understand the practical and cosmic significance of a two-sexed humanity whose joining together alone mirrored God’s creative genius. Pope Benedict XVI embraced and built upon John Paul II’s virtuoso foundations, explicating in his crystal-clear writings how human reason and the events of history complemented revelation while also objectively revealing the meaning and dynamics of marital and parental love.

Pope Francis, in turn, proposes a new platform for understanding the human family: integral ecology. He writes that like the rest of creation, but also unlike — given that the human person is the summit of God’s creation — a two-sexed humanity, made for the closest possible alliance and the procreation of all human life, is a gift from God, not subject to our destruction, consumer appetites or technological program for “progress.” Instead, as Genesis insists, the “alliance between the man and the woman” is called to mirror the “image of God.”  

This new platform is a powerful sign of the times. Parishes and marriage education programs are calling on long-married couples to share their journeys with the younger. Stunning films produced by the Humanum project (humanum.it) show as well as tell the beauty to which the male-female alliance is called. Not only filmmakers, but also poets, artists, theologians, philosophers and ordinary people of faith are grasping for new words to describe human love.

Believe your eyes. Believe your reason. The family is truly a “natural wonder.” And now is the season to figure out how best to live it and to share it with the times in which God has put you.

Helen Alvaré is a law professor at George Mason University.

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