Three Feasts and Contraception

The flow of time in which we find ourselves, between Pentecost and Corpus Christi, is a bit strange liturgically. Pentecost ends the Easter Season and launches us back into Ordinary Time. The first weeks of post-Pentecost Ordinary Time include two major solemnities: Trinity Sunday (which used to be connected with Pentecost by a suppressed octave, which is probably why the Council of Baltimore was able to receive an indult extending the time for fulfilling the Paschal Precept in the United States through Trinity Sunday) and Corpus Christi (which the rest of the world celebrates on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday but, as in the case of Ascension Thursday, has been shunted off by the “pastoral” American episcopate to the adjacent Sunday).

Just as the liturgical end of Eastertide ends in a somewhat incoherent mishmash by bishops afraid of being distinctively and publicly Catholic, so also a key theme that is never talked about too openly or explicitly in the Catholic Church today—contraception—lends itself well as a theme on these Sundays.

Why beat that “dead horse”? When one considers the prevailing notions of sex in modern American culture (and, in some aspects, even elevated into pretended “rights”) it takes no particularly discerning eye to see how far those notions have deviated from their Judeo-Christian, much less explicitly Catholic roots. And, arguably, that whole process took on a life of its own in that annus horribilis of 1968—fifty years ago next year—when Pope Paul VI promulgated his last encyclical, Humanae vitae, which taught that the deliberate separation of the procreative and unitive meanings of the conjugal act was immoral.

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That central teaching (which I hold is infallibly taught by the ordinary Magisterium) has been the object of contention for half a century. You cannot have the Sexual Revolution without rejecting Humanae vitae, for you cannot otherwise consider sex apart from responsibility for life. Of course, if you put asunder what God had joined, then these two meanings of conjugal intercourse—procreation and unity—can be spliced together in any utilitarian or convenient fashion that you, the sexual consumer, prefers.

The dissident theologians who rejected Humane vitae assembled various arguments against it, one of which was that its teaching was supposedly marginal to the central mysteries of the faith. If we dared refute that falsehood, then these three weeks would seem particularly apropos.

One: The Holy Spirit as Lord and Giver of life.
We proclaim every week our supposed belief in “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.” Yet, just as we often pray “Thy will be done” when we really mean “my will be done,” do we really affirm our belief in the Spirit as the Lord and giver of life?

Certainly, the Spirit is the giver of our spiritual lives—of grace—but it would be schizophrenic to confine his work solely to the supernatural. It was, after all, the Spirit of God that hovered at the very beginning over creation (Genesis 1:2), the primordial life-giving act.

God’s work of creation is not a finished act—we are not deists!—but continues through our human co-creatorship with God through procreation which, as Paul VI taught, should be open to life-giving love. That is what it means to be open to the Spirit, who blows where he wills (John 3:8) and gives life where he wills.

But, by its very nature, contraceptive intercourse declares that life will be given only when I will it: the “Lord, the giver of life” needs my approval to share the gift of life.

Discussions about bioethics often include an element warning about “playing God.” But that is precisely what is at stake in contraceptive intercourse: a decision to play God, to decide on the basis of one’s limited horizons whether and when life should be allowed to exist. This element becomes even more apparent in various modern technologies, e.g., in vitro fertilization, where multiple ova are fertilized but parents delegate to technicians choosing which of their children are “most likely to succeed,” i.e., have a chance at continued life through implantation. Abortion in general is obviously the most egregious example of such “playing God.”

So, whom do I believe is “the Lord, the giver of life”—the Spirit, or me?

Two: The Trinity as model for marital love.
If I had a dollar for every priest who launches his Trinity Sunday sermon with “this is a mystery,” I would be a rich man. It is a mystery, but that does not mean it lacks significance for us. Yet, I think it was the German theologian Karl Rahner who once observed that, if the Holy Trinity disappeared, most Catholics might not notice the difference.

Well, they should.

As St. John Paul II tirelessly observed, marriage should be a communion personarum, a communion of persons which is exactly what the Trinity is. Amidst all the sophisticated distinctions of Trinitarian and Christological theology, the mystery of “begettings” and “processions” can be summarized in a few words: God loves. God loves with the fullness of his Being. And because love necessarily involves another, God’s love gives life: the Father gives life to the Son, who is as truly and eternally and perfectly God as the Father. And the Son, the object of the Father’s love, loves eternally, so that where their loves join proceeds the Spirit, who proceeds from the love of “the Father and the Son.”

God’s love is always open to life, is always life-giving. That openness to life is not some theoretical positive thinking: it is fertile, it is life-giving, it gives rise to Persons.

And man is made in the “image and likeness” of that God (Gen. 1:28)—a God who is tri-Personal, a God who is life-giving, a God who is Love. So, what does that say about the way man should love, especially in the way he most directly shares in forming a communion of persons—through sexual intercourse, that can give rise to persons?

Furthermore, as St. John Paul II also noted—quoting Ephesians 3:15—all fatherhood comes from God. God is the source of life, and all life-giving capacity is a participation in his life. Also, as John Paul noted, while sexual intercourse has biological consequences—we are, after all, biological creatures, not angels trapped in matter—only God can create a soul. So, every act of fertile sexual intercourse is inherently a three-some: the cooperation of a man and a woman with God who blesses and consecrates their love with life that comes from his hand, from the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.” God is involved with man from the beginning: as Yahweh reminded various prophets (Isaiah 44:24; Jeremiah 1:5), he knew you in the womb.

Three: The communion personarum.
Man is not just a model of the Trinity; he participates in its life by virtue of creation and by virtue of grace. And he most especially participates in it by grace through the Eucharist, which is a communion personarum of the Son of God and a son of man.

Catholic Eucharistic theology speaks of Christ being truly present in the sacrament: this is the Body and Blood of Christ. It is not Christ in bread or wine nor bread and wine reminding us of Christ nor bread and wine being used for some other meaning or purpose. As Paul VI wrote in his 1965 encyclical, Mysterium fidei (# 46), “Christ becomes present in this Sacrament through the conversion of the whole substance of the bread into His body and of the whole substance of the wine into His blood, a unique and truly wonderful conversion that the Catholic Church fittingly and properly calls transubstantiation.” Why “fittingly and properly”? Because the union of persons in a communion of persons should not be affected by symbols or memories or things; it should be accomplished by persons. And that is what the Person of Christ, present “body and soul, divinity and humanity” in the Eucharist, does when he meets the person of the communicant. Once again, the primacy of the whole person totally giving life and joining in love is made clear. And, as John Kippley was wont to observe, this joining has a special significance in marriage, where the sacrament that joins two human people into a communion personarum relates to the sacrament that joins them with the Divine Person that is the author, model, and source of their being and love.

A communion of persons with God who gives life, modeled in human life through the gifts of sexual intercourse and parenthood, does not seem very marginal or tangential to the faith.

It would be wonderful if we heard about this during these three weeks.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Holy Trinity” was painted in St. Gaudenzio Church at Ivrea, Torino, by Luca Rossetti da Orta Fresco in 1738-9.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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