John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
In this 19th week of Ordinary Time, we have reached the midpoint of John’s Eucharistic catechesis. Three Sundays ago, Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, reminding us of God’s providential care for even the human needs of his disciples. Two Sundays ago, Jesus challenged the disciples to move beyond the mere satisfaction of their physical hunger to seek something deeper: his multiplication of the loaves was a sign of something, a symbol that already contained the reality to which it points. Likewise, we spoke of the body of the human person as a sign that contains yet points beyond itself to a deeper reality. Like the Eucharist, the human person points to communion: a communion of persons (communio personarum).
Even in his pre-papal writings, Karol Wojtyła saw the nexus between marriage and the Eucharist: “For Christians in general, the concept of communio itself has a primarily religious and sacral meaning, one connected with the Eucharist, which is a sacramentum communionis between Christ and his disciples—between God and human beings. By transposing this meaning to the human and interhuman plane, we do not venture to weaken or to diminish it. In fact, such a transposition may indirectly even increase our appreciation for the profundity of the mystery of the Incarnation.” (“The Family as Communion of Persons,” in Wojtyła, Person and Community: Selected Essays, p. 320, emphasis original)
So, if we speak of marriage as a “communion of persons,” what does that mean?
First, as John Paul tirelessly repeated, quoting Gaudium et spes (# 24): “man … is the only creature on earth which God willed for himself.” All the other creatures God creates serve some further purpose, if only to be subject to man’s responsible dominion (Gen 1: 28b-29). The sun and moon mark the “fixed times” (Gen. 1: 14). But the only creature that God made just for Himself was man. And not only did He make him for Himself, but He made them – male and female – “in his Image” (Gen 1:27). He made them persons.
Now, persons can only be themselves if they give themselves in love. Vatican II affirms that. John Paul II affirmed it in his first encyclical, reminding readers that without love, “man remains incomprehensible to himself.” But love inherently involves persons – plural – two. God Himself deliberates personally before creating man: “Let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26) and the words are plural.
But to love is to want to make a disinterested gift of one’s self for the real good of the other. Love desires the other’s good. It accepts the other as the other is.
And, in the case of human beings—male and female—the other is fertile.
The other has the capacity sometimes to give life. That is not just a biological rhythm but part of the way God made humans “in His image.” To be made in God’s image, as a person, requires plurality, requires the ability to give to another, and that giving occurs as the other is.
I want to stress this clearly: the capacity to give life is not just a biological rhythm, like a heartbeat or respiration. Genesis 1:29 is clear that the capacity to give life is God’s very first blessing on the man and woman He has just made in His image: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Nor is it just an arbitrary blessing, substitutable by something else, e.g., “Be wealthy and prosperous.” No—consider the context. The last creature Genesis speaks of God “making” is the human person, male and female, in His Triune Image. He now, in a certain “passing the baton.” Now this man and this woman will carry on His Work of creation. Yes, God continues to create and sustain creation, but He also does it with human assistance: through parenthood and through work. “Be fruitful and multiply,” “subdue the earth.”
So, to enter into a communion of persons with another is to relate to that person as that person is. In the case of the human person, it means valuing the person as God created him or her, and giving one’s self to that other. One hardly respects the other as God created him if we choose to destroy their very share in God’s creative power. One hardly gives one’s self to another when one suppresses or holds back one’s share in God’s creative power.
The Eucharist is the model for that giving. Jesus gives Himself totally, completely, and selflessly. He gives Himself “unto death.” Yet we equivocate on our own freely made commitments of “till death do us part.”
Wojtyła recognizes that this “communion of persons” is first and foremost “ethical,” i.e., based on moral commitments. That is so because I cannot force you to love me. That would be a self-contradiction. But that said, the decision to love or not to love is not morally neutral: I can refuse to love, but the refusal to love is first and foremost a moral decision with potentially eternal consequences. Love is great but it is fragile, because it rests on the human will.
So, when we look at marriage, we see that—like the Eucharist—it is a “sign” and a “mystery” (Ephesians 5:32). Each illumines the other. Each helps us understand what the other is.
Jesus tells His audience not to be content with a full belly, with a warm, cozy feeling (John 6:26) – be it from a satisfied appetite, sexual satisfaction, or emotional succor – but look deeper, for the “sign.” In this year of Humanae vitae, are we looking for that deeper sign, a sign that links marriage and Eucharist at their core as communions of persons?