Consciously Parents; Opus Dei Explained

Janet Smith Discusses True Nature of Sex

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JAN. 8, 2009 (Zenit.org).- How often are we fully conscious that a loving relationship could lead to the awesome responsibility of parenthood? Or, to put it another way, if you're in such a relationship with another person, do you ever ask yourself whether you could both be parents together?

Yet being conscious of parenthood should be central to the relationship. It is a truth that the Church has always taught, and is one that forms the essence of "Humanae Vitae." But Paul VI's landmark encyclical hasn't always been read that way -- at least in its English language translation.

That's because the section of the document which focuses on "conscia paternitas" has been poorly translated as "responsible parenthood," according to Dr. Janet Smith, professor of moral theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. "Conscious parenthood' would be a more accurate translation, she believes, something that John Paul II also tried to convey in his writings, particularly in his book: "Love and Responsibility."

Speaking at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross last month, Smith said that although "responsible parenthood" is good in itself, it has a utilitarian meaning in English, associated with performing the duties of a parent well, or keeping the size of a family manageable. Replacing it with "conscious parenthood" instead better conveys the true nature of the conjugal relationship.

"If people are conscious of the fact that sex leads not just to a baby but to being a parent with someone, they will much more responsibly pursue sexual relationships," Smith explained. "If I'm going to be a parent with someone, I must clearly love that person and I must want to affirm that person. So I choose as a future spouse someone suitable to be a parent. I've chosen that person because of what I think are their virtues and goodness rather than just my sexual desires."

Smith stressed that John Paul II considered sexual desire to be a very important part of finding a spouse (what he called the "raw material" of love), but added that it must be "tested against the virtue of the person" because the two will eventually become parents together. Being conscious of parenthood, she said, will "guide a couple's decisions about sexual matters, help them experience many personal goods, among them growth in self-mastery and the ability to select a spouse well."

Using the term "conscious parenthood" also directs attention away from the self while conveying the awesome call to being a parent. "It means you really understand what a fantastic thing it is to be able to bring into existence a new human being," Smith continued, "that you are basically, what he [John Paul II] calls a pro-creator with God, that you are bringing something forth of infinite value, and you've chosen this other person, this spouse, to be the one with whom you engage in that."

This teaching is especially poignant in today's society where sex has been severed from its true meaning and purpose, becoming a means of recreation rather than procreation. Like many others, Smith blames contraception for this rupture, leading to the erroneous belief that having sex and having babies are two entirely different activities. "The task of finding a sexual partner is very, very different from finding a future parent, and so you assess people very differently," she explained.

But what about couples who cannot have children? Does the teaching still apply? Smith says it does, and is proven by the "great frustration" among couples who suffer from infertility. She said the "structure of the relationship remains the same," and that "even though you can't have children you still have a sort of parental bond with each other."

Smith, who is also the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Issues at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary, said that John Paul II often wrote that "conscious parenthood" is the central theme of "Humanae Vitae." So important is this issue that Smith is planning to ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to alter the encyclical's translation of "conscia paternitas."

On the 40th anniversary of "Humanae Vitae," what better present for a society that is obsessed with sex, but has trouble understanding what it's all about.

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St. Escriva, in His Words

It's perhaps a little late for a Christmas present idea, but an interesting new book has been published that would be perfect for someone whose interest in Opus Dei has been skewered by the novel and movie, "The Da Vinci Code."

Called "Un Cammino Attraverso il Mondo" (A Walk Through the World), the book -- so far only published in Italian -- is an anthology of literature, homilies and letters of St. Josemaria Escriva that aims to reach out to those who may not otherwise have come across the founder of Opus Dei, or know much about what the personal prelature is really about.

"It's one of the many unintended consequences of the Da Vinci Code," says author Father John Wauck, an American priest of Opus Dei. "I wanted to use a secular perspective to get across why St. Josemaria and the spirit of Opus Dei might be interesting to those who aren't necessarily believers."

Father Wauck, a professor of literature at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, says the writings of St. Josemaria are "not very well known, and not terribly accessible." So he has tried to explain Opus Dei through the eyes of its founder in a way that hasn't been done before, lifting out key texts that give the reader a "flavour of his personality."

The process involved scouring through letters, biographies, and interviews. One chapter is devoted to how St. Josemaria envisioned Opus Dei from its founding in 1928 until the 1960s. "That's one of the more valuable chapters," says Father Wauck. Another chapter is called "Like a Donkey," which provides a window on St. Josemaria's personal life of prayer in which he frequently refers to himself as a donkey. One little known fact revealed in the book is the Spanish saint's penchant for drawing cartoon ducks.

The title for the book is taken from a poem by Wallace Stevens, the 20th century American poet who became a Catholic shortly before he died. Father Wauck saw many similarities between Stevens and the spirit of Opus Dei, which seeks to spread the Gospel in everyday life: although he was poet, Stevens never gave up his mundane day job as an insurance salesman.

Like those engaged in the charism of Opus Dei, Stevens understood that it's "easier to transcend the world than to find transcendence through the world," says Father Wauck. "There is a transcendence that can be found through the world, not going around it, not avoiding the things of the world, but going through the world and transforming it. The point of the quote is that it's not easy. It's actually harder to do it that way."

Father Wauck, who continues to run a popular blog that grew out of "The Da Vinci Code," hopes the book will do more than merely right the absurd calumnies made against Opus Dei by Dan Brown's potboiler. He hopes it will also appeal to readers merely from a cultural standpoint, showing a new way of approaching professional work and family life.

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org.