I had nearly completed a reflection for you on this Pentecost Sunday. I really did; with accompanying artwork and everything. And then I read something…
In a recent issue of a particular religious periodical, to which I know at least a few believing and practicing Catholics still contribute, Dr. Peter Steinfels has an article entitled “Contraception and Honesty.” Amid all of the discussion surrounding the recent synod on the family, one issue – he insists – is being noticeably omitted by the synod Fathers. This issue, of course, is the Church’s magisterial teaching on the inherent illicitness of the use of artificial contraception. Without delving into the specifics of this article, it should be acknowledged that Dr. Steinfels rightly puts his finger on a topic which everyone is dancing around, i.e., that the vast majority of people who self-identify as Catholic in Europe and North America reject the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. Further, he is also correct to point out that this is a problem.
Rather than embark on a full-blown crusade against the remainder of Dr. Steinfel’s piece, which would no doubt be seen as just another salvo lobbed by a soldier in the myopic and unproductive “culture war,” I would prefer to go even deeper into the issue which he raises. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, there has been a dramatic shift in the mores and morals of Western culture in the past seventy years or so; although this transition began long prior and was witnessed, inter alia, by Pope Pius XI in Casti connubi (1930). To my mind, at the root of these concerns about marriage, re-marriage, “same-sex marriage,” artificial contraception, etc. is not sex, but anthropology. The real question is: Who do we, as Christians, understand the human person to be?
If we consult the current cultural code in search for an answer to this question then our response will be simple: The human person is whomever I want him to be. In a piece written in 2011, Fr. Robert Imbelli – drawing upon the language of Robert Jay Lifton – described the contemporary image of the human person as “the protean self.” This phrase communicates an understanding of the human person as a “self without a center, blending effortlessly into the most disparate situations and bound by no ultimate and lasting commitments.” In short, the “protean self” possesses no real and concrete substance – to use an Aristotelean phrase. He simply exists. He is “free” to become whomever circumstances dictate him to be, whomever he conceives himself to be, whomever he wills himself to be.
The Christian response to the question of human identity ought to be very different.
Today’s Gospel reading is commonly referred to as “John’s Pentecost” (Jn 20:19-23). Most of us are probably more familiar with the Lucan account of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), but John too describes the coming of the Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus. Rather than have the disciples gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem after Christ has ascended, John has the resurrected Jesus personally communicate the gift of the Spirit to his followers. “[Jesus] said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed [enephusesen] on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit [pneuma]’” (Jn 20:21-22). What makes this Pentecost account unique is St. John’s stress on the intimate connection between the Father, the Son, the Spirit, and the Church. We are called by the Son, in the name of the Father and by the working of the Spirit, into communion with our Triune God; and to share this communion with others (mission). The Son has “infused us with the Spirit” for this end. The connection is so intimate, so personal, that the disciple of Christ inhales the very “breath of God.” For the Christian, this is who the human person is: the one capable of participating in the divine life of God. And since this is the identity of the human person, our fundamental ethical question should always be: Does a particular action or disposition draw me closer or move me farther away from this divine communion for which I was made?
Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.