Therese of Lisieux – Pope Benedict XVI's General Audience

Today the Holy Father's General Audience was on St. Therese of Lisieiux, St. Therese of the Child Jesus. The greater part of the audience is a retelling of her life. In the last two paragraphs the Pontiff reflects on her significance for us. I have translated these two paragraphs from the Italian. (An English translation is apparently not yet available.) Pope Benedict XVI points out that the saint is especially a guide for theologians. The science of theology that relies upon study depends for its vitality upon the "science of the saints", the science that comes from union with God in love and prayer.


Dear friends, with St. Therese of the Child Jesus we too should be able to repeat to the Lord every day that we want to live from love for Him and for others, to learn, at the school of the saints, to love authentically and totally. Therese is one of the "little ones" of the Gospel who let themselves be led by God in the profundity of his mystery. A guide for everyone, especially for those who, in the People of God, carry out the ministry of theologians. With humility and charity, faith and hope, Therese enters continuously into the heart of Sacred Scripture that contains the mystery of Christ. Such a reading of the Bible, nourished by the science of love, is not opposed to academic science. The science of the saints, in fact, of which she herself speaks on the last page of The Story of a Soul, is the highest science. "All the saints have understood it, perhaps most especially those who filled the universe with the radiance of the Gospel teaching. Is it not indeed from prayer that Saints Paul, Augustine, John of the Cross, Thomas Aquinas, Francis, Dominic and so many other illustrious Friends of God drew this Divine science which ravishes the greatest minds?"(Ms C, 36r). Inseparable from the Gospel, the Eucharist is for Therese the Sacrament of Divine Love that lowers Himself to the utmost to raise us up to Him. In her last Letter, on a picture that represents the Baby Jesus in the consecrated Host, the Saint wrote these simple words: "I can not fear a God who for me has become so small! (…) I love Him! For he is nothing but Love and Mercy!" (LT 266).

In the Gospel Therese discovers above all the Mercy of Jesus, to the point of saying: "To me He gave His infinite mercy, through it I contemplate and love the other divine perfections! (…) Then all seems to me radiant with love, Justice itself (and perhaps more than anything else) seems to me clothed in love"(Ms A, 84r). Thus she expresses it also in the last lines of the Story of a Soul: "As soon as I look to the Holy Gospel, I breath the perfumes of Jesus' life, and I know which way to run … It is not to the first place, but to the last that I hurry … I feel that even if I had on my conscience all the sins that one could commit, I would run, my heart broken with sorrow, into the Arms of Jesus, because I know how much you love the prodigal son who returns to Him" (Ms C, 36v-37r). "Confidence and Love" are therefore the final point of the story of her life, two words that like beacons have illuminated her whole path of holiness, so that she can guide others in the same way as hers, the "little way of confidence and love," of spiritual childhood (cf. Ms C, 2v-3r; LT 226). Confidence like that of a child who abandons itself into the hands of God, inseparable from a strong commitment, rooted in true love, which is a total gift of self, forever, as the Saint says in contemplating Mary: "To love is to give everything, and to give oneself" (Because I love you, Mary, P 54/22). Thus Therese shows all of us that the Christian life consists in living fully the grace of baptism in the total gift of self to the love of the Father, in order to live like Christ, in the fire of the Holy Spirit, His very love for all others. Thank you.

Marriage and Procreation

This post continues the response to the question, what has changed regarding christians' and the Church's view of marriage and marital relations, a question raised in a comment on the post Married Saints and Continence.

Traditional View (Systematized by St. Augustine)

St. Augustine understands sexual intercourse to be so ordered to children, the "one honorable fruit" of intercourse, that even a spouse who desires sexual intercourse more than necessary for procreation, unless they do so for the sake of their spouse and their relationship with their spouse who desires such intercourse, is guilty of a venial sin, inasmuch as they are unduly attached to the pleasure of sexual intercourse or something similar, as manifested by their use of sex apart from the end for which it is given.

This continence is more meritorious; it is no sin to render the marital debt, while to demand it beyond what is necessary for begetting children is a venial sin." (St. Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, n. 6)

These goods that are necessary for the sake of something else, if someone uses them for some other purpose than that for which they were instituted, he sins, in some cases venially, in other cases mortally (ibid, n. 9).

St. Thomas basically takes the same position, though he notes that one spouse ought to have marital intercourse not only when the other spouse explicitly expresses a desire for it, but implicitly shows that he or she wants it. (In IV Sent., dist. 32, q. 1, a. 2, qa. 1) Moreover, he says that intercourse which happens to be sterile (as opposed to intercourse intentionally sterile) is not a sin, and this includes not only cases where the spouses do not know that the intercourse is sterile, but also the cases where they know it (Summa Contra Gentiles 3, 122). This may possibly show that the procreative intention for St. Thomas need only be a fundamental and habitual intention, not an actual intention in the sense of actually expecting, with at least some small probability, a child from the particular act of intercourse. (It is not certain, as it is also possible that when he describes this act as not a sin, he means that one can consent to the act [as when one's spouse desires intercourse]).

Changes definitively made through recent Church teaching

The position systematized by St. Augustine can be, with variations, roughly described as the majority view in the West until some time after St. Alphonsus Liguori. Nonetheless it was not a universal position.

In magisterial documents in the 20th century, the Catholic Church has, in an authoritative way, somewhat qualified the manner in which the principal end of the marital act has to be in the intention of the spouses. The marital act must remain intrinsically directed towards procreation, and this intrinsic order of the act to procreation must be respected by those who choose to engage in martial intercourse, but the marital act need not lead concretely lead (even in terms of probability) to the procreation of children. Having marital intercourse for the sake of the relationship between the spouses can be morally good, even if children are impossible, and neither of the spouses expects or intends to have children through that act of marital intercourse.

Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. (Humanae Vitae, n. 11)

If there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained…. When the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love. (Ibid., n. 16)

Common Change of Viewpoint

The common view, in contrast to the position of the Church, is now that sexual or marital intercourse, or at least individual acts, need not be ordered in any significant way to procreation. This is the complete opposite of the traditional position systematized by St. Augustine. This view has a number of consequences. One of these is that it leads quite naturally to the abandonment of any general moral objection to homosexual unions, even if it still allows for various sound political and religious reasons to not recognize them as marriages.

Married Saints and Continence

In an earlier post, Married Saints – Why so few?, I addressed the question of why there are so few married saints canonized as married saints, that is, in view of the life they lived as married persons. In the comment thread to that post, I was asked why so many of the married persons who have been canonized lived in continence, that is, without having sexual intercourse with their spouse for a significant portion of their life as married persons.

Again, there are several possible answers, grouped according to the general manner they explain the connection between this continence and canonization.

There is a positive correlation from continence to charity (continence contributes to charity, or is thought to do so)

(1a) Such continence is in fact extremely helpful, indeed practically necessary in order to attain the heroic virtue to which canonization attests.

(1b) Such continence was thought to be necessary in order to attain the perfection of charity.

Amongst all relationships, conjugal affection engrosses men's hearts more than another other, so that our first parent said: "A man leaves father and mother, and clings to his wife" (Gen. 2:24). Hence, they who are aiming at perfection, must, above all things, avoid the bond of marriage.
The second way to perfection, by which a man may be more free to devote himself to God, and to cling more perfectly to him, is the observance of perpetual chastity… The way of continence is most necessary for attaining perfection… Abraham had so great spiritual perfection in virtue, that his spirit did not fall short of perfect love for God on account either of temporal possessions or of married life. But if another man who does not have the same spiritual virtue, strives to attain perfection, while retaining riches and entering into marriage, his error in presuming to treat Our Lord's words as of small account will soon be demonstrated. (St. Thomas Aquinas, On The Perfection of the Spiritual Life; this quotation, from a saint and universal doctor of the Church, is intended as support for 1a and 1b.)

There is a positive correlation from continence to canonization

(2) The holiness of married saints who practiced such continence is more evident than the holiness of others.

One reason for this, as I mentioned in the previous post, is that holiness always involves following the spirit of the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity, obedience); and other things being equal, someone's following the spirit of the counsels is more evident when it is incarnated in the literal following of the counsels.

There is a positive correlation from holiness to continence

(3) Those who are well advanced in charity and the other virtues are disposed and desirous of practicing such continence. (This may follow to some extent of itself, and to so extent due to 1b.)

Fulton Sheen, in his work Three to Get Married, suggests something along these lines:

All love is a flight towards immortality. There is a suggestion of Divine Love in every form of erotic love, as the lake reflects the moon…. Sex is only the self-starter on the motor of the family…. The begetting of children enlarges the field of service and loving sacrifice for the sake of the family. In a well-regulated moral heart, as time goes on, the erotic love diminishes and the religious love increases. In marriages that are truly Christian, the love of God increases through the years, not in the sense that husband and wife love one another less, but that they love God more. Love passes from an affection for outer appearances to those inner depths of personality which embody the Divine spirit. There are few things more beautiful in life than to see that deep passion of man for woman, which begot children, transfigured into that deeper passion for the Spirit of God. It sometimes happens in a Christian marriage that when one of the partners dies, there is no taking of another spouse, lest there be the descent to lower realms from that higher love, from the Agape to the Eros.

As before, so here I suggest the answer is, in varying degrees: all of the above. Continence in its various forms (the periodic continence practiced in NFP, continence during times of more intensive prayer (e.g., Lent) mentioned by St. Paul, or continence after the children-bearing time) is a valuable means to growth in the gift of oneself implied in charity; it was considered to be a valuable, practically necessary means; it manifests virtue; and it often flows naturally from charity.

A few points to be made pertinent to the remarks of the commentator in the previous post

(a) A spiritual director might rightly refrain from taking any initiative in advising a particular couple to such continence for a long period, and might caution them if they are desirous of practicing it for a long period. That does not mean, however, that he would or should strongly disallow or strongly advise against it.

(b) There have definitely been various developments in the Church's understanding of virginity and marriage. It seems quite true to say that in praising virginity and continence, marital relationships were not infrequently excessively devalued. There are various reasons for this, one of which is that in general there was a greater concern to safeguard the special value of virginity than of marriage. Hence, if it was difficult to avoid either failing to properly appreciate virginity or failing to properly appreciate marriage, as it was and is difficult for people to properly appreciate both, they preferred to fail to properly appreciate marriage rather than to fail to appreciate virginity, with the natural consequence that in many cases they did fail to properly appreciate marriage.

(c) To affirm a greater possibility of love in giving sex up for the sake of a greater good, as in the case of celibacy or continence, does not imply that sex is bad or even hinders any particular degree of holiness, anymore than the affirmation that "there is no greater love than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" means that life is bad, or that living is an obstacle to becoming holy.