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Pastoral Message

March 26, 2009

Bishop R. Walker Nickless
Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

As we continue our journey of Lent, from our own sinfulness to our Lord Jesus Christ’s “way of the Cross,” we anticipate in our own flesh His Passion, and in our spirits His Resurrection. Our Lenten disciplines of fasting, abstinence, prayer, and good works help us to accept and to imitate our Lord’s utterly unmerited gift of life-bearing love to us as members of the Church, His beloved spouse. By receiving this gift more fully, we are transformed by the grace of Easter to be more able to share this gift – that is, to love purely and without counting the cost – with all God’s little ones.

Bearing the burden of our own little crosses to Calvary, then, we renew our commitment to live Christ’s own life, and to love all as He loves us. We must return, as I have recently been saying in these letters, to the “fundamentals of our faith.” I have already mentioned specifically such fundamental things as daily prayer, fasting and abstinence, almsgiving, better preparation to receive Jesus Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist, daily examination of conscience, and the Holy Sacrament of Confession. Two weeks ago, I also noted how the “culture of death” has been advancing in our nation (with President Obama’s executive orders forcing the funding of homicidal, embryonic stem-cell research, and forcing the cessation of funding to alternative, morally licit forms of stem-cell research) and in our state (the threat of legalizing same-sex marriage this year).


Marriage is an issue of extreme importance, both politically, with the “life issues” of abortion, embryo-destroying stem-cell research, human cloning, and euthanasia; and theologically, with the Holy Sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession. It is another of the fundamental parts of our faith that we must invite Christ to reinvigorate in our Lenten discipline and indeed, our whole lives.

Marriage is a sacrament. This means that marriage conveys to each member of a family God’s transforming grace. Just as in the sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Confession, we receive that grace to the extent that we are open to it: truly prepared to receive, submissive to His will, without stain of mortal sin which rejects God’s love in our hearts, and sincerely intending to repent and stop sinning.

Sin within marriage is also very real, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Every man (that is, every person) experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals…” (CCC, 1606).

The reality of sin, manifest but unhealed and often unnoticed, within our “domestic Churches” (that is, the family) sours the love of Christ in our homes and in our hearts. Two of the obvious forms of this kind of sin, often and loudly denounced by the Church, are domestic violence (so often complicated by alcohol or drug abuse, another addictive kind of sin), and infidelity. These physically oriented sins clearly destroy homes and lives, and transform love into despair.


But there are also less obvious, spiritually-oriented forms of this kind of deformation of marriage. Pornography is, in its own way, at least as destructive as verbal or physical abuse of a spouse, because it thoroughly dehumanizes human beings, turning a human person into an object for the satisfaction of desire, an object to which no love can be given and from which no love can be expected. Contraception and sterilization, likewise, are spiritual irruptions of the “culture of death” into marriage. Contraception has been preached against many times, and it should be clear enough why it is objectively immoral to attempt to remove the fruitful love of God and His gift of life from one of the most profound forms of expressing (always within sacramental marriage) unconditional human love.

The manifest evils of sterilization, however, might today be less clear, or at least less well known. Our prevailing culture, being influenced by the culture of death, accepts the false premise that sex is about “me and my pleasure,” rather than about giving oneself unreservedly to one’s spouse, and thus also to Christ. Our culture also accepts the false premise that creating life is a bad thing, inconveniencing me and my “needs,” and burdening my plans. How selfish this is! In this selfish view of sexuality, sterilization is a good thing, because it eliminates a worry, a problem, a source of interference with my pleasure.


But, by sacrificing the sacramental reality of God’s love guiding and forming our human love within marriage, sterilization denies God, rejects God’s love, and refuses God’s Providence. Vasectomies (the most common sterilization) and tubal ligations are very grave sins. In claiming to love, apart from God, the spouse we have married, we are in fact rejecting God’s love in them. Having rejected God’s love in this way, we begin to reject God’s love in other forms also. The end of this road is unbelief and a lack of love. The moral effect of sterilization is to sterilize the heart.


In a similar way, “in vitro fertilization” (IVF) and maternal surrogacy also express profound deformations of the good of marriage. Dignitas Personae, “The Dignity of the Human Person,” an important Vatican document from December 2008, teaches again, very clearly, “With regard to the treatment of infertility, new medical techniques must respect three fundamental goods: a) the right to life and to physical integrity of every human being from conception to natural death; b) the unity of marriage, which means reciprocal respect for the right within marriage to become a father or mother only together with the other spouse; c) the specifically human values of sexuality which require “that the procreation of a human person be brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act specific to the love between spouses” (DP, #12).

IVF is always gravely evil, both because, in practice, it always involves the destruction or discarding of human embryos in the process (against the first fundamental good), and also because it always divides the act of procreation from the act of marital love. Having the motive (good in itself) of having children does not make IVF a moral act. Maternal surrogacy is also gravely evil, because, while it may respect the right to life, it still, like IVF, deforms marriage by dividing the act of procreation from the act of marital love.
Marriage is a fundamental article of our faith, and indeed of our whole worldly and spiritual life. Stable, healthy, and faith-filled marriages serve the good of society by forming children to be stable, healthy, and faith-filled adults. All these worldly evils which deform marriage also tend to deform the character of the next generation. This deformation of character can be healed by the grace and power of Christ in His Church – but, since God chooses to allow us free will, only to the extent to which we desire to be healed, and seek His grace. To the extent that we, as Catholics, do not desire to be healed, and cling instead to these false gods of the culture of death, we are incapable of bringing the Paschal light and life of our Lord Jesus Christ to the poor of the world. But, if we refuse thus to serve our Lord and Master, how can we expect Him one day to receive us into His heavenly life with the welcome, “Well done, good and faithful servant?” I think these issues are important for us to reflect upon this Lent. The more we know and appreciate the teachings of our faith, the better we can live and share these with others.


I know many of you join me in surprise and anger that the University of Notre Dame, for many, “the” example of a Catholic University, through its president, Father John Jenkins has invited the most pro-abortion president of the United Sates not only to give the commencement address this year, but also to receive an Honorary Law Degree. This is in violation of the Bishops of our country’s teaching that no honors ever be given at our Catholic institutions to those who support and promote the killing of innocent human beings through abortion. This is truly a sad day for the famous university dedicated to our Blessed Mother. I encourage those who care to write to Father Jenkins and express their displeasure with this invitation. May Father Jenkins have the courage to rescind this invitation and not be afraid of the possible embarrassment of admitting that he has made a bad decision. Catholic institutions of higher learning must always be places where the Catholic values we hold so dearly will always be supported and promoted and not where the culture of death is allowed to be honored or valued. Let us pray for those who work so hard to keep our Catholic institutions truly Catholic in all they do to promote the gospel of life.

May this Lent bring us to accept the need for a renewal of our entire faith, and the desire to live only in and through our Lord Jesus Christ, in His Church and in all His holy sacraments! Pray for me, and know that I continue daily to pray for all of you.

Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City

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