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by Dr. Greg Popcak
On this 49th Anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae, one point that continues to be overlooked is that sexuality stands at the center of the lay vocation. Attempting to practice a lay spirituality while ignoring sex is like living a zombie spirituality that divorces the body from the soul. If the Church is serious about the universal call to holiness, she has to get serious about proclaiming and helping people live the Catholic vision of sex and love. What am I talking about? I’m glad you asked.
Lay people: Spiritual also-rans?
Historically speaking, until Vatican II, lay people were all-but officially considered to be “spiritual also-rans” who, if they wanted to be serious about their faith, were welcome to borrow whatever spiritual equipment (e.g., Liturgy of the Hours, Lectio Divina, contemplative prayer, etc.) they could from the spiritual A-Team — clergy and religious.
But it isn’t always easy for lay people to use these tools. Lisa and I regularly hear from listeners to More2Life who complain, “Since I had kids, I just don’t have time to pray like I used to.” The problem isn’t that lay people are spiritually lax. It’s that many of the tools Catholics consider to be our spiritual stock-in-trade were primarily developed for clergy and religious and don’t easily translate to life in the domestic church.
Until Vatican II’s earth-shattering proclamation of the “universal call to holiness” declaring that priests, religious and lay people alike are capable of real sanctity, no one really considered what an authentically home-grown, lay approach to spirituality would even consist of.
Lay spirituality: A new approach
Enter St John Paul the Great. As (effectively) the first post-Vatican II pope, he dedicated his life to laying the foundations of a lay spirituality that fit the demands of the domestic church. Because lay people’s lives are consumed the minutiae of paying bills and raising families, he made St. Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church. Her “Little Way” of holiness offers a path to sainthood that consists of doing even these little things with great love. Acknowledging how few examples of sanctity the Church offered to lay people, he canonized more lay and married saints than any pope before him. Considering the challenges lay people face trying to live a holy life in the midst of a troubled world, he promoted devotion to Divine Mercy. Viewing the rosary as the layperson’s easiest entrée into contemplative prayer, he wrote an apostolic letter on how to pray it properly and added an entire set of mysteries highlighting events every family could relate to — a baptism, a wedding, teaching children life lessons through stories, a father raising up his beloved son, a family meal.
And the crown jewel in this effort? St John Paul’s Theology of the Body, through which, week-after-week, over the course of 129 Wednesday audiences, he promoted a marriage-centric, nuptial view of the pursuit of holiness, the sacraments, salvation history, the Church and the gospel itself.
Sex: The heart of the lay vocation
And what was at the center of the Theology of the Body, this massive reflection on lay spirituality? Sex. Why? Not as some critics alleged, because St John Paul had a weird obsession with pelvic issues, but because virtually every waking moment of the lay person’s life is spent seeking a mate, maintaining their relationship with their mate, conceiving children, dealing with struggles related to conceiving children, and raising those children to find good and godly spouses. It all comes down to tasks related, in one way or another to sex and sexuality.
Christianity is an incarnational faith. It begins with conception, with God emptying himself and becoming embodied. As such, an authentically Christian spiritual life must also be embodied. If celibacy allows priests and religious to dedicate their bodies to work for the good of God’s Kingdom, how could a lay person share in this work? The Theology of the Body answers this question by building on the vision Pope Paul VI articulated in Humane Vitae, inviting lay people to resist the secular world’s reconception of fertility as a disease and to refuse to engage in sexual practices that treat people as sexual objects, create barriers to the two becoming one flesh and think of children merely as a burden.
That’s why any lay spirituality that seeks to divorce itself from the sexual character of the lay vocation is little more than a zombie spirituality; a body stumbling around desperately seeking redemption for its basic hungers. Christians, especially lay Christians, can do better. Almost 50 years since the promulgation of Humane Vitae, it’s high time for Church to give lay people their rightful spiritual inheritance by boldly proclaiming and supporting lay people in living an authentic, embodied, home-grown, nuptial, spiritual life. And it is time for lay people to claim their sacred right to live the universal call to holiness in the unique ways only lay people can.
When we talk about the Church’s teaching on sexual love, and NFP in particular, we as a Church need to do a better job to help people see that we aren’t just talking about a way to regulate fertility. We’re really talking about the foundations of a lay spirituality where couples join priests and religious in bringing their sexuality to God for the greater glory of his Kingdom and the building of an authentic Civilization of Love.
— Dr. Greg Popcak is the director of CatholicCounselors.com, the author of Holy Sex! and the host of More2Life on EWTN Radio/SiriusXM 130. He is also a columnist for CCL’s Family Foundations magazine.
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