Sunday, July 8, 2012

Venerable Fulton Sheen on Birth Control

I’ve seen this wonderful quote from Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen in various places on the internet:

The root principle of birth-control is unsound. It is a glorification of the means and a contempt of the end; it says that the pleasure which is a means to the procreation of children is good, but the children themselves are no good. In other words, to be logical, the philosophy of birth-control would commit us to a world in which trees were always blooming but never giving fruit, a world full of sign-posts that were leading nowhere. In this cosmos every tree would be a barren fig-tree and for that reason would have upon it the curse of God.

I don’t know the source, though – whether in his writings or in one of his talks. But in searching for the source, I ran across this recording of his talk on “Birth Control”. I’ve transcribed it below, with my emphases.

Peace to you.

The subject about to be discussed is birth control. The words are not very proper, first of all, because those who believe in it actually believe neither in birth nor in control. Therefore, we shall never use the words again; they are finished.

We propose first to answer one or two objections or false philosophies about the subject of the purpose of marriage.

The first is this: Married couples will often say, “We cannot afford more children; therefore, we have a right to fumble with the levers of life.” Those who make a statement of this particular kind probably never think of the terrible principle that they are enunciating.

Namely: the primacy of the economic over the human.

Now just suppose one put that into practice in other walks of life.

Suppose a family had five children but they had enough money to buy only four hats. Do you think they would be permitted or should be permitted to cut off the head of a child in order to bring the economic to the level of human and the human to the level of the economic?

Suppose a husband says that he can no longer support his wife. Ought he be entitled to shoot her?

What is forgotten here, in giving the primacy to the economic, is that we receive blessings as we put ourselves in the area of God’s love. A waif on the street does not receive food, clothing, and shelter as a child in a family because that waif is outside the environment of love. So too, to the extent that we put ourselves outside of the environment and area of God’s love, we exclude those divine assistances that would otherwise come to us.

Those who put the primacy on the economic are really not interested in saving or earning. They are interested in spending, and it is that which dictates the frustration of life. There’s a brood of idle passions, and a desire for more credit and more clothes and more selfishness, which dictates their philosophy.

They believe that they are free, therefore, as we said, to manipulate life apart from God’s laws because it is only Catholics that are bound by the laws of fruitfulness of marriage. So they say that Catholics are opposed to any frustration of human life in marriage. That indeed is true.

But it must be remembered that those who are not Catholics are no more free to violate God’s natural law than anyone else. It just happens here that the Church is defending a natural law. And because we are about the only ones who are defending it, there are some who are led into the error of believing that the opposition to the frustration of love is purely and solely a Catholic doctrine.

We could conceivably reach a stage in the world where Catholics alone might believe that 2and 2 make 4, and that grass is green in the springtime. These are principles that belong in the natural order. So is the principle that marriage is destined to be fruitful.

 Just suppose that a vast majority of people went around with their eyes blindfolded and their ears plugged up. We would very soon have a papal encyclical which would oppose that. And the Church would say, “It is not right to blindfold your eyes or to plug up your ears. Does not reason, does not the  natural law tell you that the eyes were meant for seeing and that the ears were made for hearing? Therefore, you must allow these organs to work out the function for which God created them.”

There indeed would be many that would say “Oh, the Catholic Church is opposed to eye control. The Catholic Church is in opposition to ear control.” Certainly! Because reason tells us why these organs were made.  So too, a husband and wife were made in a certain way and God created male and female in a certain way, and therefore these organs are to be permitted to function according to the way that God made them.

What are we going to make this world? A universe in which we pick up violins and bows and never produce music? A universe in which sculptors pick up chisels and never touch them to marble in order to create a statue? Are we going to have trees blooming, but never any fruit? Sign posts that lead nowhere? Is life and love to be reduced to a kind of epidermal content and contact without any fruit or purpose?

But that is all negative. We must always take the positive position. And on this particular subject of the fruit of love we will describe and enunciate two sublime teachings. One, love in marriage creates the deepest kind of unity. And secondly, that deep unity of love by its very nature tends to an incarnation.

We said that love creates the deepest kind of unity of love. We might also say, by the way, that this particular point that we are to develop proves also that there is not to be union of sexes outside marriage.

Have you ever noticed that Scripture nowhere speaks of marriage in terms of sex, but always in terms of knowledge? Why is that?

Well, first of all, let us prove the point: In the book of Genesis, for example, it says, “And now Adam had knowledge of his wife Eve, and she conceived.” He had knowledge of her.

The angel Gabriel announced to the Blessed Mother that she was chosen to be the mother of our Blessed Lord, and she asked, “How can this be since I have no knowledge of man?” Notice here that there was no question of the ignorance of conception, but of some deeper mystery.

St. Paul says, “Husbands possess your wives in knowledge.” Why is marriage spoken of as knowledge? Well, for this reason: Because one of the closest forms of unity in the natural order is that which comes from knowledge. You look out on a flower or a tree; you know these things. They enter into your mind. There begins to be a unity, the closest kind of unity in the natural order between the knower and the thing which is known. You cannot think of anything more close than the union of your mind with that which you know.

So Sacred Scripture compares marriage to knowledge, because marriage produces a unity and it demands fidelity. When a man knows a woman, there is a unity that is created between the two that is like to the union of the mind and that which is known. That unity is so close, so intimate, that it may be used over and over again, but it never again may be re-acquired. They are two in one flesh. From that point on, there is nothing that happens to a woman that does not happen to the man that made her a woman. He made her a woman; she made him a man.

Just as you are always indebted to the one that gave you the knowledge about Shakespeare, namely our Alma Mater, so too one is always indebted to the one who created that unity between the two. The resulting psychic changes indeed are great but they are great also in the order of the body. The woman can never again return to virginity; the man cannot return to ignorance. Something has happened to make them one, and from that oneness comes fidelity, so long as either has a body. They can never put themselves back into a state that they had before.

Therefore, it is not just an experience; it is a bond that continues to exist as long as life itself.

Now in married couples this union is very deep, and that brings us now to our second point – that all love tends toward an incarnation. Thus far, we have spoken of the love of husband and wife creating a deep bond of unity, a unity of love. Now we want to show that this love naturally tends to diffuse itself.

Everything that is good diffuses itself. The sun is good; it diffuses itself in light and heat. The flower is good; it diffuses itself in perfume. Animals are good; they diffuse themselves in the generation of their kind. Man is good; his mind is good; his mind diffuses itself in thoughts. God is good. God diffuses himself not only in creation. From all eternity, God has an eternal Son. The source of all generation is in love.

Let not, therefore, husband and wife be told that procreation is in imitation of the beasts of the field. It is rather in imitation of God who from all eternity has an eternal Son, the Son to whom he can say in the agelessness of eternity, “Thou art my Son. This day have I begotten thee.” This day, without beginning or end. Now this power of generation, which is eternal in the Godhead, is communicated to man’s mind, it is communicated to the body of a husband and to the body of a wife.

God said, “Shall I make others bring forth children and myself be barren?” Therefore, the power of generation is not a push from below, it is a gift from above. Not only do we find therefore that the motive power of begetting children is in the Trinity, but it is also in the Incarnation because all love ends in an incarnation – even God’s. God so loved man, He became enfleshed in the human nature.

What is our Blessed Lord but God’s love incarnate? God’s love walking this earth in form and habit of man.

You see how beautiful love is?

If one could give a definition of love in the light of the Trinity and the Incarnation, it might be that love is mutual self-giving which ends in self-recovery. It is mutual self-giving because no one is good unless he gives. But if love were just mutual self-giving, it could end in exhaustion. Therefore, love is a mutual self-giving which ends in self-recovery.

In the Trinity, there is the giving of the Father to the Son, and of the Son to the Holy Spirit, and there is the self-recovery in the sense that the Holy Spirit is the bond which unites Father and Son…the unity of love.

So too it is with husband and wife. There is the mutual self-giving of husband and wife and that mutual self-giving ends in self-recovery…which is the child.

The thrill of a farmer as he sees a grain of wheat he planted coming into life; the joy at seeing a geranium bud in that tin full of earth on the tenement window sill; the ecstasy of a saint at seeing a sinner dead in sin responding to prayer and beginning to live life: all these are earth’s witnesses to the inherent happiness that comes to anyone who sees life springing and sprouting or a-borning.

Love does not mean just the joy to possess. It means the will to see a new life born of that love, to see someone created in one’s own image. And what is the child? The child becomes the bond of union between husband and wife. The child unveils fatherhood in the husband and motherhood in the wife.

There is a new relationship created. Not only did the father make his wife a mother, but the child made him a father. See, love becomes a kind of an ascension from the sense plane, and goes back again to God. Children are almost like beads in a rosary, binding together the love of husband and wife.

Love always demands something unrevealed; it flourishes only in mystery. No one ever wants to hear a singer hit her highest note; nor to hear an orator carry passion to tatters, to very rags. One never wants to see the infinite denied or life’s urge stilled or a passion bloodied. One wants to see an unfolding, an enrichment, an enfleshment of love.

And that is what happens in marriage when there are children. One distinct mystery after another is unfolded. There is the unfolding of the mystery of the body. Then there begins to be the unfolding of a new mystery, the mystery of motherhood and the mystery of fatherhood. Then when the children have to be trained, there comes the mystery of father-craft and mother-craft.

New areas of exploration are opened up. There’s never dullness. Indeed, the husband after a time can become dull to the wife and the wife to the husband. But, when the children are born…the first boy…Well, he begins to be the new life of the husband all over again. The wife becomes very pretty once more. The daughter… As each child is born they bind together husband and wife as a reflection of the binding love of the Holy Spirit. And because each child has a soul to save, there becomes an awakening of sweet responsiveness.

As Kahlil Gibran wrote when he spoke of children, he said: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. They come through you, but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your soul, for they have their own souls. You may house their bodies, but not their souls. For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow that you cannot visit even in your dreams. You make strive to be like them but seek not to make them like you, for life goes not backwards nor tarries with yesterday.

“You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite and he bends you with his might, that his arrows might go swift and far. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness, for even as he loves the arrow that flies, so he loves also the bow that is stable.”

And that is the story of life. God sets up the target, you are the bow, and you children are the arrows. You have a messianic mission. In your life, you represent the conquest of love over the ego. You symbolize the defeat of your selfishness, and represent the victory of charity. Every child begets sacrifice, tends toward an incarnation, and every child becomes for you a pledge of your own salvation. How happy you will be on judgment day when God says, “Your love has borne fruit.”

If God did not bless you with children, in any case you can also rejoice that you’ve never buried love in a napkin. You sent it back again to God, from which it came.


  1. And people think Theology of the Body says something new and "liberating." Heck, it doesn't say AS MUCH as Bishop Sheen! Absolutely inspiring!

  2. I love Fulton Sheen. What he writes about marriage is very romantic. I for one think birth control has nearly killed romance. I just finished a book which chronicles the eugenics movement from Malthus to the present. The whole idea of affording children and planning your family is Malthusian propaganda.

  3. I think he makes marriage and the duty of motherhood sound very noble indeed...which of course they are!

  4. Fr. W. M. GardnerJuly 9, 2012 at 9:53 PM

    "If one could give a definition of love in the light of the Trinity and the Incarnation, it might be that love is mutual self-giving which ends in self-recovery. It is mutual self-giving because no one is good unless he gives. But if love were just mutual self-giving, it could end in exhaustion. Therefore, love is a mutual self-giving which ends in self-recovery.
    In the Trinity, there is the giving of the Father to the Son, and of the Son to the Holy Spirit, and there is the self-recovery in the sense that the Holy Spirit is the bond which unites Father and Son…the unity of love.
    So too it is with husband and wife. There is the mutual self-giving of husband and wife and that mutual self-giving ends in self-recovery…which is the child."

    This is an amazing quote from Archbishop Sheen. I wish he would elaborate further. He seems to be saying here (and further down below..."The child becomes the bond of union between husband and wife") that the mutual self-giving of the spouses in the marital act is not to be radically differentiated from the procreative meaning. In other words, such mutual self-giving requires a terminus... an end, which is the child whom the spouses desire to be.
    Some of the lines of thought in this talk are also found in Three To Get Married.
    Thanks, Jay, for transcribing this!

  5. I've started reading "Three to Get Married", too! Archbishop Sheen really has a way of presenting marriage that encourages an aspiring to all that leads to our holiness within in.

  6. This talk by Bishop Sheen, and 40+ others, is available from on a single CD (all MP3 format so they can fit on one CD). PLUS, all the talks have been transcribed in book form: "Your Life is Worth Living," available from the same web site.

    Unfortunately, the paragraph above ending in "father crab[?]" etc is not transcribed in the book. That whole paragraph is skipped over, probably because the author, too, couldn't make sense of "father crab." But the paragraph ends with an emphasis on the mysteries unfolded through the training of children, so I propose that what Bishop Sheen says is not "father crab" and "mother crab," but "father craft" and "mother craft," as in "the craft of mothering and fathering." That's what it sounded like to me, anyway.

    For anyone who treasures the words of Bishop Sheen, that CD and companion book are "must haves." The entire series of talks, including the one on "birth control," were unscripted. Bishop Sheen just sat down in front of a microphone and ... spoke. Without notes. The series is from 1965. From the introduction to the series and the book:

    "We have had alternatives in making this work. One alternative was to write out everything I was going to say and then read it to you. The other alternative was to study, meditate, and then talk out of the fullness of my heart and without notes. That is the way I have chosen."

    When you read the above talk, and realize that this was simply presented, spoken, from the fullness of his heart, it is even more amazing!

    Venerable Fulton Sheen, Pray for us!

  7. Thanks, Terry! Fulton Sheen is another one of those treasures I've only recently discovered.

    "Father craft" and "mother craft" makes perfect sense, now that I "hear" it. At first I thought he was making a little joke, that moms and dads have to be "crabs" at times (at least in their children's eyes) when they have to discipline them. But he didn't even have the hint of a chuckle in his voice, so I really wondered. I think I'll correct it in the post.

  8. I believe that comes from his book Peace of Soul. So happens I was reading that essay just yesterday.

    Mrs. Mike


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