Sister Lucia dos Santos, one of the three children who witnessed the Marian apparitions at Fatima, died in 2005. But before her death, she predicted that the final battle between Christ and Satan would be over marriage and the family. We may very well think that this battle is in full swing as I write.
Without attempting a detailed sociological review, we may remember that the breakdown of marriage in the UK is above 40%. In addition there is a large number of long term cohabitations: unmarried cohabiting parents account for one fifth of couples but half of all family breakdown. The overall result is that one in four toddlers and nearly one in two teenagers are not living with both natural parents. Since lone parents often live in near poverty, there is a national welfare bill approaching 50 billion pounds. And on top there is the huge emotional cost. – which is almost bound to be reflected in the marriages, or otherwise, of the next generation.
No one can doubt that this is a tragedy which might rightly be called a battle between Christ and Satan. And we would see at the heart of this a separation between sexual activity as an expression of the unconditional commitment of marriage and sexual activity as an expression of temporary relationship, and indeed just for entertainment.
Our immediate response to this might well be that the curse lies in the widespread usage of artificial contraception. After all, given the power of the sexual instinct and the ready availability of methods to avoid conception, what else would we expect? It would seem that Paul VI was right in confirming the Church’s prohibition.
Before we settle for this, however, there are some considerations. The most obvious one is that, with or without, Humanae Vitae, and, even if the general Catholic population had fully accepted the ruling, the outcome would have been much the same.
The HV ruling was not concerned with preventing a couple from avoiding conception, but only with the method being used. Indeed the champions of natural family planning make much of their brave successes in devising better and more accurate ways of avoiding conception. It was argued in the Papal Commission, which preceded HV, that many couples using NFP spent so much time and emotional energy on avoiding conception that it could damage the marriage.
But as we know the papal teaching was broadly rejected, and we understand that upwards of 90% of Catholic couples do not follow the ruling. And such evidence as we have suggests that the parish clergy, for the most part, are doubtful about it. Nor, given the proportion of bishops who supported the Commission’s conclusions, are the bishops seen to be fully aboard. We are in the awkward position of having a definitive teaching which the body of the faithful ignore.
The consequences are alarming. Despite the clemency of the Church in this matter, a large body of the laity feel themselves to be marginalised. We might see evidence of this in the severe reduction in the use of Confession. Another effect may be the dramatic fall in Catholic marriages. Today, measured by size of Catholic population, Catholic marriages in England and Wales are less than a quarter today of those in 1968. There is a similar decline in other major headings. Is it coincidence that these declines started with the arrival of HV? (Figures taken from the Catholic Directory)
Perhaps worst of all, the Church has no effective voice in championing the importance of marriage. In this great battle to which Sister Lucia witnessed, the Church hampered in playing an active part. Even on this Blog we have heard contributors lamenting the rarity of sermons on marriage, In the battle between Christ and Satan the Church has found itself in the sidelines. And, rightly or wrongly, it is held there by HV. In the ordinary world of battles it is unwise to continue following the tactics which are leading to defeat. But, if we were to develop new tactics to uphold marriage and the family, what would they be?