Pentecost and the Human Person

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.

4 thoughts on “Pentecost and the Human Person

  1. “The human person is whomever I want him to be… whomever he conceives himself to be, whomever he wills himself to be.”
    As Pope Benedict wrote in Saved in Hope, when did Jesus message get narrowly interpreted as individualistic, aimed at each person singly? When did we make the Christian project a selfish search for salvation and reject the idea of serving others?
    Love is not what can I get out of this relationship be it work, friendships or marriage, but rather what can I offer! What if we lived our love as an outward action rather than as selfish actions seeking to get? Would love then turn the I into a We and thereby increase the Body of Christ?

  2. My concern about the argument around contraception, w/i marriage or not, is its polarizing nature, largely because it’s so deeply personal. Yes, we are humans, and by nature we are generally programmed to think and feel similarly around prial subjects which affect our ability to live and reproduce. For some, preventing the later enables the former. For most we are simply, and predictably digging in deeper in our positions around such subjects as a result of pressures to think and act otherwise. The harder the opponent pushes, the harder we defend our argument -often past the point when we recalled why we were truly having it.
    The last thing we need is yet another reason for schism; losing yet another population of Catholics.
    Yes, we need to teach what we believe, and we believe in far more than all life being the work of God. Why arent we arguing about the life-giving imperative of regular collective participation in the eucharist? Why dont so many know why this is so, and believe? I would suggest that one of the main reasons is we’re too busy arguing among ourselves about issues we’ll never agree on, at least within the combative and judgemental methods we seem to default to. We’re also losing fellow sheep because we stop catechisis at 8th grade, just before we’re starting to make critical life decisions, and coming to know ourselves.
    Dont get me wrong, as an adopted child (now pushing 50), I totally get the gravity of the impacts of reproductive decisions young girls make every day, everywhere. I’m a miracle because a 16 yr old girl in 1965 somehow found the courage to face great challenges, oppositions within and all around her, and then work with Catholic Charities to hand me off to remarkably wonderful parents – my second miracle.
    Maybe people would take us and our arguments about the sanctity of life more seriously if we demonstrated our beliefs a bit more, and vocalized about them less…put “some skin in the game” as it were and rally around women in need to help them and their miracles in the making by enabling adoptions – and supporting the physical, mental and spirital health of these women.
    In the end, it’s not up to any of us to judge anyone, and putting others down never elevates us.
    Little children, if you want to live out the law of Christ, love one another. (John)

  3. Anthony,
    Thank you for a beautiful and timely reflection. Indeed, without an “adequate anthropology,” all of the misunderstandings about freedom and truth you point out will persist. I am going to share this with friends and students!

  4. Many thanks to all who took the time to reply to this post. Ralph reminds us that at the heart of the gospel is Jesus’ call to serve, rather than be served, in love. He also brings out the point – which Pope Benedict has made – that too often the contemporary culture (in every age!) is the standard by which we judge the Christian message rather than allowing the Christian message to judge the contemporary culture.
    Brice brings up the wider issue of how this particular Church teaching is lived within a wider “culture of life.” I too agree that, regardless of where one falls on specific Church teachings, there is always a danger of “cherry picking” what I believe and how I live those beliefs. A “culture of life” is just that, an entire culture. Adopting a “culture of life” means that all of my decisions – from those related to sex ethics to those which reflect how I treat the most vulnerable members of society to issues related to the environment – are imbued with a respect and affection for what God has created. In terms of “getting this message out,” I always begin with myself. It is the primary vocation of the laity, rather than the clergy, to evangelize the world. Spreading this message is our job! We can’t rely on parish catechists to be the sole evangelizers of our youth. We all must be evangelizers in every place and every day in word and deed. As baptized Christians our vocation is to be a light to the world, and – contrary to the fluctuating state of the current economy – this job is always in much demand.
    Lastly, thank you for your kind words, Ann. They are much appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *