Sunday, March 25, 2012

12-03-25: Fifth Sunday of Lent

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34 / Psalm 51 / Hebrews 5:7-9 / John 12:20-33

With the heated debate over religious freedom of conscience now raging as the presidential election approaches, that very issue of conscience has become entangled with sexual behavior and reproductive issues. Although for the past twenty years, with Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” the church has sought to engage issues of sexuality and reproduction within an “incarnational” framework, what unfortunately seems to result, when such topics mix with vying political agendas, is that the church is seen as the great nay-sayer, a puritanical voice amid the cacophony of voices that claim freedom and choice as its goals.

Today, March 25th, is the traditional Solemnity of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and the virgin conceived “by the power of the Holy Spirit.” It’s odd that the church, for all its current concern over reproductive technologies and the legitimate conception of children, wouldn’t emphasize the Annunciation more – move it to a Sunday or, at least when it falls on a Sunday as it does this year, celebrate the Annunciation rather than the usual Sunday. But, alas, next to the mystery of the Trinity itself, there are few things so incomprehensible in Catholic life than liturgical rules and practices.

One of the current areas of contention between Catholic sexual morality and us moderns (Catholics included) is the issue of in vitro fertilization (IVF). One could argue, at least from anecdotal evidence, that Catholics by and large disobey, ignore, contravene this prohibition as much as they do the prohibition against artificial contraception. But not even the more conservative among Catholic leaders and politicians (are they the same entity?) dare broach that teaching for fear of alienating their brothers and sisters and, perhaps as time goes on, their own mothers and fathers. Yet, as far as I understand it, the moral reasoning prohibiting both is pretty much the same. In the case of contraception the church teaches that, in marriage, every conjugal act must be open to procreation and to circumvent that possibility, by artificial means, is immoral. In the case of IVF the church teaches that the unitive aspect of marriage must also be always evinced between a man and a woman and, thus, then to remove the act of fertilization from that marital “embrace” is also immoral. John Paul II’s “language of the body” understands marital intercourse to “speak” both a bodily self-giving (procreative aspect) and a spiritual self-giving (unitive aspect). To evade either is to, in this sense, act falsely; to lie, as it were, with your very body.

In a perfect world, I suppose, all that sounds quite admirable and a worthy goal to want to strive for. But one wonders where that world might be. I remember back in the ‘70s when Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby” – the first to be conceived in vitro - was born. Pope John Paul I was one of the first to acknowledge her birth and did so without condemnation, rejoicing in her birth rather than focusing on the means of her conception. A wise political choice for that historical moment. Alas, times have changed.

It has since become, if not commonplace, then quite un-extraordinary, for a child to be conceived in vitro. The moral questions concerning what happens to the other fertilized but un-implanted eggs are, for sure, a grave moral concern. But that question really doesn’t impinge on the morality of how the born-child was conceived. Perhaps the Feast of the Annunciation, when we celebrate the fact that a young unmarried girl conceived a child in an asexual manner without benefit of intercourse or marriage, can help us better grapple with this contentious issue. The Virgin Mary and her bodily experience does not fit the strictures or definitions of what Catholic morality insists should be – suggesting perhaps, a la Shakespeare, that there’s more to the mystery of life and its origins than is in our philosophy – or our moral theology.

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