James the Greater and Humanae Vitae: Signs of Contradiction

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint James ‘the Greater’, not because of any intrinsic superior quality to the other James, ‘the Lesser’, the author of the New Testament epistle, whom we venerate with Saint Philip on May 3rd, but likely because this James was older.

Today’s James was the brother of Saint John the Evangelist, together described by Christ as boanerges, the ‘sons of thunder’, for reasons that are obscure, but may have something to do with their zeal and fiery temperaments, as they ask that Our Lord to send fire from heaven to burn the ‘unrepentant’.  Their zeal would soon be tempered by the patient example and teaching of the Son of God.

James seems to have been the first of the Apostles martyred for the Faith, being ‘killed by the sword’ at the command of Herod Agrippa.  According to tradition, his body is buried in Spain, and these relics were the site of the greatest of pilgrimages from the days of the early Church until today, the Santiago de Compostella, from France, through the Pyrenees, northern Spain, to that ‘field of stars’, at the edge of the sea.  How many graces have flowed from following the steps of Saint James, we will never know, at least before eternity.

It is providential that Blessed Pope Paul VI chose to promulgate the ‘thunderous’ encyclical Humanae Vitae on this day 51 years ago, in that fateful year of 1968, with the sexual revolution at its zenith. Short, clear and to the point, the teaching of the Holy Father minced no words in declaring, for all time and for all people, that sex belongs only within marriage, and even then only when its two proper ‘significations’ of procreation and unity were kept intact.  In other words, no sex outside of marriage, and no contraceptive sex.  Just pure, holy, joyful and life-giving married sex.

This may be a difficult teaching, a sign of contradiction, but only to those of fallen and disordered souls, which includes all of us, for the wound of that original fall of Adam has caused a universal wound in Man, inclining us all to sin and selfishness, not least in the sexual realm.  It is a long and difficult road to virtue, but made possible, even delightful, by grace, prayer, the sacraments and the support of our fellow Christians, most of all the mutual support of husband and wife, following that chaotic and rambunctious road to heaven of family life.

Of course, most seem to want to find out the hard way the beautiful truth of Humanae Vitae, even resisting to the point of hatred and violence, which is perhaps why Pope Paul chose this day to promulgate the encyclical.  He likely knew what opposition it would face, how many would reject the truth, even within the Church, including, sad to say, many of his own bishops and priests, whom he exhorted to faithful obedience in the final pages.

Those who do remain faithful will face various kinds of martyrdoms, like Saint James, the first of the Apostles to witness to the truth of Christ with his life.  But in the end, the only way to fullness of life, here and in eternity, is by way of the truth, whose splendour shines through the ages, like that ‘field of stars’ at the end of Jame’s own pilgrimage to heaven.

Saint James, ora pro nobis!