At the Council of Albi, held in AD 1254, in southern France, the Catholic Church responded to a threat to human life and marriage called the Cathari heresy (also known as the Albigensian heresy). The Cathars believed that pregnancy was the greatest evil that a person could commit. If the Cathari heresy had prevailed, it could have literally brought about the extinction of the human race.

The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese’s 1.1 million Catholics.

‘Hail Mary’ to the rescue!

St. Paul urges us to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). Here, the Church did just that. To overcome the Cathari heresy, the Church decided to require that all the faithful memorize and regularly pray the Hail Mary. In this way, each member of the Church would be proclaiming in prayer: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” The Hail Mary, recited by all the Church, won the battle against the Cathari heresy, as it also lifted up the wondrous mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, celebrating that moment when the Lord Jesus took flesh and became one with us through Mary’s “Let it be done to me according to thy word.” This requirement to pray the Hail Mary may also explain why the rosary, which began at the same time in history through the efforts of St. Dominic and the Order of Preachers, became so popular throughout the Church, and why it continues to be a principal weapon today to overcome the culture of death and to build a civilization of love.

The fruit of the womb is holy. Every child is a blessing. A child is never an evil, even if the circumstances that led to the beginning of a new human person were not morally upright. At all times, pregnancy is a wondrous gift of God, for at the moment of conception a unique and unrepeatable human being is created by our loving God. The Lord Jesus Himself is “the fruit of the womb.” As Elizabeth said to Mary (Lk 1:42): “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” In union with Mary’s Son, we human beings discover our own dignity and high calling.

The Immaculate Conception

Is it not more than coincidence that the bishops of the United States of America, many years ago, placed our nation under the patronage of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception? Our national basilica in Washington, D.C., is a beautiful sanctuary bearing that title.

This great mystery of our faith draws our attention to the moment that Mary was conceived without sin in the womb of her mother. From the very first moment of her existence, God preserved her from any moral blemish so that she could be the worthy Mother of His Beloved Son, the perfect Temple of our Redeemer, so that she could immaculately conceive Jesus in her most pure womb and give birth to Him in the poverty of Bethlehem.

Mary’s Immaculate Conception teaches us the dignity of every human person at the moment of conception, no matter whether we are the poorest of the poor or the richest of the rich. Since the Immaculate Virgin Mother is the “first disciple,” the perfect example of a follower of Christ, we can be sure that the holiness God accomplished in her is a true sign of the holiness He wishes to accomplish in us. The celebration of her Immaculate Conception each year on Dec. 8 is a reminder to us of the intrinsic and inviolable good of all human life in the womb. Any argument that seeks to diminish that good by advocating contraception or abortion must be firmly rejected.

The good of children

In a recent address to American bishops in Rome for their ad limina visit, Pope Benedict XVI urged us bishops to be diligent in promoting and explaining the Church’s teaching on sexuality. In this effort, he said the Church’s key concern is “the good of children, who have a fundamental right to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships.” He went on to say that sound family life “is the surest guarantee of the intergenerational solidarity and the health of society as a whole.”

The words of our Holy Father are built upon a central teaching of the Church, expressed at the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes, #50), namely that “…children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents.”

In his apostolic exhortation on marriage, Familiaris Consortio, Blessed John Paul II taught that parenthood is both a privilege and a responsibility in which husband and wife associate themselves in the most profound way with God in the work of procreation. They are able, he said (#28), “to serve life, to actualize in history the original blessing of the Creator — that of transmitting by procreation the divine image from person to person.”

The blessing of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life is becoming more evident today, even as it becomes ever more urgently needed. As the Church’s teaching, found, for example, in Humanae Vitae and Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, spreads here in our diocese and beyond, we find grateful acceptance and recognition of this solid foundation for a joy-filled marriage. The false promises of the sexual revolution that had contraception at its core are collapsing around us. They have not brought the joy and freedom that people desired but, rather, have only enslaved and have brought about a further degradation of sexual morality and an undermining of the family. Today, a positive and ennobling understanding of sexuality and marriage is emerging on the basis of fidelity to God’s plan for marriage.

Though forms of the Cathari confusion have arisen again in our time, the Lord provides His Church with the gifts needed to counter the false and shallow attractiveness of sterility and to replace it with God’s plans for life and love.

Next time, I shall look at how men’s and women’s ways of dealing with their fertility impact on their very identity and their mission from God.