This Is A Hard Teaching; Who Can Stand It?: Theology of the Body, Contraception and the Eucharist
The sixth chapter of John’s gospel Jesus begins with the feeding of the multitudes with five loaves and two fish. The crowd, who wanted to crown him as king, followed Jesus the next day asking for a sign. Instead of giving them more food for their bellies Jesus gave them food for thought. Jesus challenged the sensibilities of everyone present; the poor and the wealthy, the uneducated and the learned, the laity and the priests and Pharisees. He told them that he was going to provide more than manna for them, that he had new heavenly bread that would give them eternal life. That bread was his very flesh and blood which he commanded them to eat and drink. He affronted their ideas of what God and their religion could or would ask of them. He challenged them to believe in something that was, in their thinking, impossible and outrageous.
The response of the crowd demonstrated how offended they were to be asked to believe such a thing:
“Who is this man? Who does he think he is?”
“How can he tell us to eat his flesh?”
“This is a hard teaching; who can stand it?”
Many of his followers left that day. These were disciples leaving, not just bandwagon jumpers following Jesus to get a free lunch or see a miracle or two. Jesus even challenged the apostles, those closest to him, to leave him, yet they stayed. Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” Jesus cared not for the opinion of crowd or the popularity of his position. He didn't react to this desertion by changing his teaching. The truth is the truth and it is immovable even when all else around is shifting like sand.
This controversial teaching by Jesus spoke prophetically of the gift he planned to give to us in the Eucharist. It was fulfilled at the Last Supper when he broke and gave his body to the apostles. He poured out and shared his blood with the men that, through faith, refused to leave him when they couldn’t fully understand his teaching. Acting in and through his authority the apostles and their successors followed his command to “do this in remembrance of me”. By the sacramental grace he won at the cross the Church has participated in sharing his body and blood at every mass through the ages. It is through the gift of the Eucharist that the Church is nourished and enters into deeper relationship with Christ.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks about the relationship between Christ and the Church. In chapter five he calls upon wives to be submissive to their husbands, just as the Church is submissive to Christ. Likewise, he challenges husbands to lay down their very lives for their wives, just as Christ sacrificed himself for the Church. Why? Paul understands that the marriage covenant speaks, mysteriously, of the relationship of Christ and the Church. Jesus is described elsewhere in scripture as the bridegroom and we as his bride. Understanding union with Christ within a marital relationship necessarily requires an understanding of Christian marriage as intended and instituted by Christ himself.
When asked about the question of divorce, Jesus pointed his questioners to the creation narrative by quoting from Genesis 1:27; 2:24. Following this example to gain an understanding Christian marriage, and by that insight into Christ’s relationship to the Church, it is necessary to look to God’s original plan for marriage as found in the creation stories of Genesis 1-3. What does it mean for man and woman to be created for each other and in the image and likeness of God? How did God intend that original unity to be expressed? In what way has original sin distorted God’s original plan for marriage and how is it restored in Christ?
To understand what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God requires an understanding of the very nature of God—to the extent that it can be understood. The revelation of the Trinity is the revelation of the eternity of familial love and relationship. God the Father possesses in himself the fullness and essence of fatherhood from all eternity. Human fatherhood is merely a finite representation of this divine reality. In the same way, God the Son possesses the fullness and essence of sonship from all eternity. The Father loves the Son completely and is eternally giving himself to the Son as a total self-gift of love, holding nothing back. This love is received and likewise returned to the Father from the Son in a mutual, perfect self-gift of love. The bond of this love is so perfect, so complete that it is itself the very person of the Holy Spirit. It is in this image and likeness that man and woman were created.
After Adam is created by God and given dominion over all of creation something odd happens. Until this point all of creation has been declared “good” by God, but now God declares something is “not good”. Adam is alone. He cannot fully reflect the image and likeness of the Trinity without someone to give himself to as a complete, life-giving gift of love. God creates Eve to be Adam’s helpmate, his wife, a person whom he can give himself to in love. Naked and unashamed because they are able to love each other perfectly and purely, Adam and Eve are joined by God and are able to fulfill the divine command to “be fruitful and multiply.”
In his perfect wisdom God created man and woman as complimentary beings physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He created man and woman to give themselves each other in the marital covenant to become “one flesh”. For this reason, the Church has always taught that the marriage act has two equal and indivisible components: the unitive and the procreative. In God’s plan when marital love is expressed between husband and wife it is always life-giving and love-giving. The husband gives all of himself to his bride who receives him and in turn gives herself to him. The bonds of love are strengthened through marital intimacy and this love is open to the creation of new life itself.
This original design has been fractured and remains threatened by the presence of sin. After the Fall, Adam and Eve were “ashamed” at their nakedness. Sin had entered their hearts and impaired their ability to perfectly and purely love each other. For the first time, they saw each other as a means to an end, as an object to satisfy their desires. This fault carries down through the generations. It rips at the heart of marriages and marital love. Selfish desire leads to divorce and infidelity. Fears, insecurities and self-centeredness seek to close the marital act to the gift of love. Attacking marriage—the image and likeness of God, the model of the relationship between God and man—has been at the center of the plans of the enemy from the Garden down through the ages.
Enter Jesus Christ. Enter the Incarnation. Jesus comes to show what love looks like. It is self-emptying, just as he emptied himself to become human. It is forgiving, just as he extended the mercy of God to sinners. It is completely self-giving, just as he gave all of himself on the cross. It is life-giving, just like the new life he offers from the empty tomb. Jesus held nothing back in giving all of himself as a perfect gift of life-giving love to his bride, the Church. Nowhere is this more evident than at every mass celebrated every day.
At the words of consecration simple bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. The bridegroom comes under the most humble of appearances to the bride. So in essence Jesus (the groom) gives his flesh & blood, his soul & all that he is as a total self-gift so that his Church (the bride) can receive him to become one in a unitive and (spiritually) life-giving act. The mass, more specifically communion, is the consummation of the marriage of Christ and his Church.
What happens when this gift of Christ is received but not returned? What about members of the bride that take what Christ offers, but refuse to allow that grace to penetrate their hearts or transform their lives? Is this any different than a marriage practicing contraception? One partner’s gift of self is rebuffed by the refusal to allow that gift of love to bear the fruit of life?
July 25, 2012, marks the 44th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humane Vitae, which reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s condemnation of artificial birth control. In that encyclical Pope Paul spoke of the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of human sexuality. He warned of dire moral and social consequences if artificial contraception was widely accepted, and his predictions have unfortunately come to pass. Divorcing the unitive and procreative aspects of sexuality has resulted in the destruction of marriages, victimization of women, and draconian political population control.
How did many in the world, the laity, the theologians, the priests, and even some bishops respond to Pope Paul’s affirmation of centuries’ old moral teaching? Many responded the same way the crowd did to Jesus when he told them about the Bread of Life.
“Who does this Pope think he is?”
“How can he tell us what to do with our bodies?”
“This is a hard teaching; who can stand it?”
Once again observers, followers, and even the successors of the apostles were challenged to hear and accept God’s truth. The Church is called to respond like Peter, to accept and follow, hoping that understanding will come later. It is not an easy teaching. It challenges and provokes because it is personal and requires a response. Choosing to reply in faith, like those who heard and believed Christ’s call to “eat my body and drink my blood” is eternally rewarding.
A 2010 Beliefnet.com survey found that over 70% of American Catholics did not consider using artificial birth control a sin, and 59% admitted to using contraception. Another survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 45% of American Catholics did not know that the Church teaches that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ at mass. Among the faithful there is a tragic loss of the original unity of procreative and unitive love intended for our marriages and our spiritual lives. If Catholics reject the teaching of Christ, willfully or out of ignorance, they cannot possibly enjoy freedom and strength that is promised to them through the sacraments. Is it any wonder then that the Church faces a time of trial and difficulty? The love of the Trinity and our calling to be the image and likeness of God becomes forgotten. Marriages are weakened. Souls grow indifferent. And the Church suffers from a lack of saints in our midst.
But there is hope. There is always hope in Christ. He is raising up a generation that is rejecting the lies of the enemy and rediscovering the beauty of unitive and procreative love in marriage and in the Eucharist. The way is not easy, but is possible by God’s grace and with the aid of the Holy Spirit.