Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 72(1) February 2022

Being Open to Life:
Being Open to Being-in-Relationship

Francis Etheridge

To begin with, natural family planning did not seem to be something that I thought about very much; but then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was profoundly untrue. My reflections on this theme, however, are far from simply seeing, directly and wonderfully, the beauty of love’s embodied expression. Therefore, there are about three layers to this synthesis; and, it is called a synthesis, because each aspect of truth and expe-rience complements the other: wrongdoing and psychology; sin, salvation, suffering and the covenant of marriage; and natural family planning.

Wrongdoing and psychology

The awful experience of serial relationships, invariably involving wrongdoing and which, because of that, were immured in the problems of conscience which circled about what was right and wrong and, therefore, went nowhere but in a kind of spiraling down in failure. Failure, however, is too simple a word for the tragedy and heartbreak of losing a child to abortion, being indecisive about whether or not to marry, to contracept, to stay apart or to come together; indeed, human nature entails an orientation to what is right and the whole time there was a kind rebounding retaliation of that nature against the betrayal of it [2]. In other words, there is not just the anguish of how each responds to the other and the whole circumstances of whether or not marriage is a real possibility, but there is also the vestige of a faith formation in the Catholic Tradition which somehow communi-cates, even in the simplest terms, that the sacrament of marriage entails an act of faith: an act of faith that “entering” marriage is not a sealed suf-fering from which there is no escape and only the prospect of a kind of personal suffocation.

At the psychological level, then, it was clear that there were profound reasons why an uncommitted giving, only in part wholly or wholly unpredictably when taken back in the incomplete giving of with-drawal – expressed a nature-in-rebellion with itself. Psychologically, however, there were intimations of the spiritual significance of this immature and incomplete giving but recognizing wrongdoing is not exactly the same as discovering oneself to be a sinner. Therefore psychological suffering expresses itself in an isolating hatred of oneself, in which a degenerative depression becomes an unbridgeable divide between oneself and others.

Sin, salvation, suffering and the marriage covenant

Discovering oneself to be a sinner is both humil-iating and, hopefully, the beginning of humility; but, even more so, it is about being discovered by God. Therefore, just as Jericho is the lowest point on earth, so there are the lowest points in our lives; and, just as Christ encountered Bartimaeus near Jericho (cf. Mk 10: 46-52), so He encountered me at my lowest point: the point where the bitterness of disappointed, hoped for but useless experiences of love, poisons life almost to the point of seeking death. Why then? Why there? Why me? Maybe the exhaustion of self-help was God’s opportunity to be helpful. Maybe soul-searching is really searching for God [3]. Maybe God simply took pity on my wretchedness. On the one hand, even religious experiences like imagining the loss of an aborted child to be, mysteriously, like the dead body of Christ in the arms of Mary, not the end of death but a prelude to the resurrection. On the other hand, in a moment, I went from reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church to believing that if God can create everything out of nothing He can make a new beginning for the sinner (CCC, 298). I went on to marry and found a family at forty and we have just celebrated twenty-five years of marriage: a celebration organized by our eldest daughter and her seven brothers and sisters! Where God is there is life and life in abundance (cf. Jn 10: 10).

In the course of this return to the Church, which was really being given the grace to enter the Church for the first time, my fiancée and I were given the book of Tobit to read in which, towards the end, when Tobias and Sarah marry, and before they come together as husband and wife, they pray (cf. Tobit 8: 4-9). Thus, not only did God grant a chaste courtship but we were taught to pray: a prayer, I am sure, that has always comforted me with the hope that as we come together, amidst all the varied circumstances and difficulties of life, or forestall because of them, that God is with us to help us as He did at the marriage feast of Cana, constantly turning water into the ‘good wine’ (cf. Jn 2: 10, but also 1-11).

This experience of the ‘good wine’ of Jesus Christ at work in the mystery of marriage has been complemented, or even expressed, by two different realities. On the one hand we have been surrounded and helped by a community[4], within the Catholic Church, with whom we have shared our walk in faith.

The mystery of the marriage covenant

On the other hand, covenant theology is renewing our understanding of marriage, as the complementary document on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, says:

‘The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent’ (48).

In other words, the ‘irrevocable’ conjugal covenant of man and woman is rooted in the irrevocable conjugal covenant of God with creation.

Let us recall that the covenant of God with Noah is a world-wide covenant with creation as a whole and, as such, is a promise to fulfil the good He expressed in the act of creation; and, as such, this is the founding of the covenant relationship which, over time, becomes ever more specifically expressed in the blood of Christ (cf. Mt 26: 28) and the call to prayer: ‘As God gradually reveals man to himself, prayer appears as a reciprocal call, a covenant drama’ (CCC, 2567). Thus the covenant is a ‘reciprocal call’ to relationship: to seek the good God has promised to fulfil in Christ and in us for the good of all creation. In view of the centrality of the covenant to the whole of creation, it is particularly significant that it is applied to God’s relationship to us and to the mystery of marriage that “expresses” the mystery of the reciprocal love of Christ and His Church (cf. Eph 5: 21-23). In this context, then, let us recognize that …

‘In Scripture … covenants involved the exchange of persons, so as to form sacred family bonds’: ‘the deeper meaning of divine covenants in the Old Testament was God’s fathering of Israel as his own family’ [5] . Furthermore, just as ‘marriage is a covenant, involving an exchange of persons’ and, as every covenant has an ‘act whereby the covenant is enacted and renewed’ so the ‘marital act is a covenant act’ and when ‘the marriage covenant is renewed, God uses it to give new life’ [6]. Thus what God does in ‘fathering Israel as his own family’, God enacts in fathering the family of husband and wife.

However, this is not a judgement on the infertile as God is implicitly present in the mystery of marriage; and, therefore, just as love is not fruitless in the marriage of Christ and His Church, so it is not fruitless in the life of an infertile couple [7]. The mystery of the marriage feast of Cana is that Christ is present in the sacrament of marriage, bringing life out of death, ‘good wine’ out of water; and, therefore, even in the midst of all the suffer-ings entailed in being open to life there is the possibility of “Passover”: of Christ taking us from death to life. Thus, sacramental marriage, whatever its reality, is an outward expression of the presence of God bringing life out of death.

Natural family planning

‘There was a godly way to experience the act of marriage and to be prudent in serious circumstances by practicing continence during times of mutual fertility’; and, subsequently, Natural Family Planning ‘was presented as a prescription for difficulty rather than as a daily vitamin for general health’ [8]. In other words, in their passionate response to the Christian life, Scott and Kimberly Hahn have lived in their flesh both the trials of coming to the full truth about the mystery of the Christian life and its expression in a Catholic, sacramental marriage, rejecting as they did even the presence of contraceptives on the ‘shelf ’[9]. Thus they evidence the view that ‘couples who use NFP [Natural Family Planning] for any length of time … claim improvement in their interpersonal com-munication as well as greater satisfaction in marriage as a result of using the method’[10].

However, as we know, there are occasions when a hormonal compound is not used as a contraceptive but in order to treat a medical condition; but, having said that, there may be ways that the new understanding of the actual bodily processes of women may be beneficial in these situations too [11]  – provided that the medical profession is made aware of this newly available knowledge [12]. More widely, then, it needs to be more appreciated that, even ordinarily, there is a value to a woman’s growth in self-understanding as the very presence of ovulation is an indication of a woman’s general health [13]; and, therefore, self-monitoring of a woman’s cycle is also, as it were, a possible early indicator of the development of health problems.

By contrast, then, not only is it true that

“It is difficult to understand how use of these agents, which treat no pathology and cure no disease, can be justified by those who follow the Hippocratic maxim, “Above all, do no harm”’[14].

-   but it is almost as if the very pursuit of this empirical self-knowledge is a part of a general impulse to return to the study of what actually exists which, in its way, entails a conversion to what “is” [15], where what “is” is about what really exists as good and true and is not simply a “product” of money-making mentalities [16] or an indiscriminate claim that justifies our misuse of ourselves or the environment on the basis that these things are “a part” of what exists.

Given, then, the reality that a woman’s regular ovulation is a significant sign of her general health then it is clear that anything which “masks” this reality, like hormonal contraceptives, is actually against the general good of the woman; and, if this is true, then it is possible that there is a lack of understanding about contraception’s impact on the personality: that there is a participation of the user in the unintelligibility that arises more generally from the eclipse of God (Gaudium et Spes, 36). Just as the use of contraceptives is in the context of seeking to exclude the natural consequence of a conjugal act, thus negating it as an act of total, reciprocal self-giving, so it is clear that there is an unimaginable blindness to the contraceptive effect in the oceans, diminishing as it does the fertility of fish in the sea [17]. In other words, the reality of contraception is that it is not only an act “against life”, in terms of repudiating the possibility of a child - if, that is, it does not actually have an abortifacient effect and bring about the death of a child; but it is an act against the fertility of reciprocal self-giving as a whole-some reciprocal gift of self and thus it is an act against the reality of the relationship between the man and the woman as it is an act against the possibility of becoming an actual parent. Further-more, just as contraception involves the repudiation of possible parenthood, both through each other and because of negating the possibility of a child, so the root of this repudiation of rela-tionship is, in the end, a repudiation of the fact that we come from the mystery of the interrelationship of the Blessed Trinity, of three persons in one God, and we are called into relationship with God and each other.

In conclusion, then, being open to life is not just about bearing with the possibility of a conjugal act being fruitful in the life of a child, even when it was not deliberately intended, it is more deeply about being open to the relationships to which we are called: to the relationship which arises in marriage as an expression of the total, reciprocal self-gift of husband and wife; the relationship of being parents to children; the relationship of being open to the empirical truth of who we are and what is true, good and right, both for us and our planetary home; and, in and through and integral to these relationships, is the call of God to enter into a relationship to the mystery of God Himself, His Church and His triune life.

And, given this desire of God to be in-relationship to us, is the saving love of Jesus Christ who, always and ever so ready to do so, is both searching and seeking us out in order to embrace us in His forgiveness and, therefore, to reestablish His relationship to each one of us and to each other.

Footnotes and references

  1. Cf. Francis Etheredge, The Human Person: A Bioethical Word:; and even, Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration:
  2. Cf. Francis Etheredge, The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends: and The Prayerful Kiss: etc.
  3. Cf. David Wester, “On Prayer: Mine and Yours”:
  4. My wife and I are members of an itinerary of adult formation called The Neocatechumenal Way.
  5. Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993, p. 30.
  6. Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home, 1993: p. 27.
  7. Elizabeth R. Kirk, “Humanae vitae and The Cross of Infertility”, p. 322 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later, edited by Theresa Notare, 2019.
  8. Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home, 1993: p. 39.
  9. Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home, 1993: p. 40 and the book as a whole.
  10. Mary Shivanandan, Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, Ltd, 1999, p. 244.
  11. Cf. Kathleen M. Raviele, “Natural Family Planning and Ethical Women’s Health Care”, Chapter 10 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later: Embracing God’s Vision for Marriage, Love, and Life, edited by Theresa Notare, Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2019.
  12. Cf. Marguerite R. Duane and Erin Adams, “The State of Fertility Awareness Based Method Education for Medical Professionals”, p. 203 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later, edited by Theresa Notare, 2019.
  13. Cf. Marguerite R. Duane and Erin Adams, “The State of Fertility Awareness Based Method Education for Medical Professionals”, in Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later, edited by Theresa Notare, 2019, p. 206: ovulation is monitored ‘since the presence of ovulation is a sign of good health’ (and see footnote 40: Pilar Vigil et al, The Linacre Quarterly, no. 4 2012).
  14. William V. Williams, “Medical Consequences of Hormonal Contraception”, p. 233 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later, edited by Theresa Notare, 2019.
  15. Cf. Angelo Scola, “The Nuptial Mystery”, p. 13 of an address to Oxford Catholic Chaplaincy, 1998, 21st March, since published in Communio, (Winter 1998); and Cf. also Angelo Scola, “Following Christ: On John Paul II's Encyclical Veritatis Splendor”, Communio, Vol XX, No 4 (Winter 1993), page 725: Christ 'is the full way toward man and throws reason wide open.'
  16. “Humanae Vitae: My testimony as a doctor” by Philippe Schepens, General Secretary of the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human Life, delivered at “Humanae Vitae at 50: Setting the Context”, Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, Rome, 28 Oct 2017, In an article by Dr. Thomas Ward, “The War on Parents and Humanae Vitae”, Professor Winter is quoted as saying ‘after the armaments industry the contraceptive and abortion industry was the second largest multi-national industry in the world’ (
  17. Cf. Teresa Stanton Collectt, “Against Ideological Colonization: The Teaching of Humanae Vitae and a Humanely Adequate Global Ethic”, pp. pp. 264-265 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later, edited by Theresa Notare, 2019; and Cf. Francis Etheredge, “The Whale in the Bath”: