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Forgetting the begetting: why the abortion question is fundamental.

The birth of the Son from the Father is the origin
 of every begetting of another.
 in his commentary on Boethius's
 De Trinitatae, prologue

ABORTION IS MORE THAN A MORAL QUESTION. It challenges the core purpose of society. In fact, the very structure of the world's reality is related to the answer we give as a culture to the question of the legitimacy of abortion. Is this an extreme statement? Not if we are aware of the true ground of existence, nature, and the human person.

It is helpful to recall the basic Catholic teaching about the ground of existence. The words of the first chapter of Genesis affirm, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that "the totality of what exists (expressed by the formula 'the heavens and the earth') depends on the One who gives it being" (290). The Catechism also states that "creation is the common work of the Holy Trinity" (292). This is brought out in the New Testament which "reveals that God created everything by the eternal word, his beloved Son" (291). St. John's gospel says of the Word, "all things were made through him and without him was not anything made" (Jn1:3). St. Paul says of Christ: "He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together" (Col 1:15-17).

Further, "the Church's faith likewise confesses the creative action of the Holy Spirit, the 'giver of life,' 'the Creator Spirit,' the 'source of every good'" (291).

In another passage, the Catechism makes clear:
 God freely wills to communicate the glory of his blessed life.
 Such is the "plan of his loving kindness" conceived by the Father
 before the foundation of the world, in his beloved Son: "He
 destined us in love to be his sons" and "to be conformed to
 the image of his Son" through "the spirit of sonship." This
 plan is a "grace [which] was given to us in Christ Jesus before
 the ages began" (2 Tim 119-10) stemming immediately from Trinitarian
 love. (257)

The world then is created within and through the love of the Father and the Son. As Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests, the creation of the world unfolds in some sense within the act of the Father's begetting of the Son. St. Paul speaks of "the Father from whom every paternity whether spiritual or natural takes its name" (Eph 3:15). Human beings are made in God's image, and it would follow that the human act of conceiving a child originates from and is an image of the Father's begetting, as our leading quote from Aquinas notes. Each act of sexual love between a man and a woman is called to be a further expression of God's total self-giving, with the potential to bear fruit in other Christ-bearing persons.

If the parents' begetting of a child to be nurtured and protected in the mother's womb is a reality denied or rendered insignificant in the arguments justifying the legalization of abortion, then a society directly denies God's purpose in creating the world. A society that condones abortion rebels against the order of the world based on the Father's love, the Son's mission, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is surely a grievous offense against God.

To explore these ideas further, I examine Balthasar's theological contributions relevant to this argument: namely, existence as good, the relation of difference to unity, the analogy of being, the hypostatic union, self-giving love as ontology, Christ's mission, and fruitfulness in the Holy Spirit.

The Goodness of Existence

Balthasar helps us to understand our existence by beginning in a very concrete way with "the mother's smile" that welcomes the infant into existence in the world. The mother conveys to the child that existence is good, a reality in which he will be loved. Her love awakens the child's consciousness of its own being as positive. Balthasar describes the importance of this moment in a child's development this way:
 Its "I" awakens in the experience of a "Thou": in its mother's
 smile through which it learns that it is contained, affirmed and
 loved in a relationship which is incomprehensively encompassing,
 already actual, sheltering and nourishing. ... Existence is both
 glorious and a matter of course. Everything, without exception,
 which is to follow later and will inevitably be added to this
 experience must remain an unfolding of it. There is no "gravity
 of life" which would fundamentally surpass this beginning.
 There is no "taking over control" of existence which might go
 further than this first experience of miracle and play. There is
 no encounter--with a friend or an enemy or with a myriad
 passers-by--which could add anything to the encounter with the
 first-comprehended smile of the mother. (1)

I would like to think this smile begins as soon as a woman knows she is pregnant, in her first awareness that she is bearing new life. But this early smile needs the encouragement and support of the father who has begotten the child. These relationships concern the "otherness" of a person who is distinct from oneself, with his or her own needs and drive for life. This joy in greeting new life is all the more remarkable when we consider the possibility that from a purely selfish point of view parents might see a child as a threat that will cost them time, effort, money, and loss of a free lifestyle.

The Meaningfulness of Difference

Balthasar emphasizes the importance of understanding the meaningfulness of difference. When the child awakens to consciousness through the call of the mother's love, Balthasar tells us, the child experiences implicitly everything else that will be "other." When this "other" is welcoming, loving, and giving, reality opens up as a wondrous and positive miracle. The "other" who is distinct from myself is good. I come into the world in this relationship with another distinct from me, and within this relationship I discover my own "I," experiencing a world in which love and being are coextensive. This is an experience of being given to myself by another and for another, in other words, as a gift. "It is not thanks to the gracious favor of the 'I' that space and world exist, but thanks to the gracious favor of the 'thou.' And if the 'I' is permitted to walk upon this ground of reality and to cross the distances to reach the other, this is due to an original favor bestowed on him, something for which, a priori, the 'I' will never find sufficient reason in itself." (2)

The child experiences that his own being is good and is a gift to the parents, as well as their being a gift to the child. Initially the child does not differentiate between this parental love and God's love. These are simply given. The child receives and the child gives; thankfulness is implicit. Eventually the child comes to realize its parents' existence is also a gift from another. To whom does the child owe gratitude?

The Other, who has brought the child into existence, allowing the great richness and diversity of all beings on the earth, has bestowed both the gift of existence and the immense variety of forms of being in the world. This generosity reveals a fullness and a beauty and goodness that is both beyond us and distinct from us. Balthasar goes to considerable length and detail to show that this distinction between the world and the One who is its source is good and not threatening, a source of unity and not alienation. This article does not attempt to explore this in depth, but will only summarize his conclusions bearing on this topic.

The Value of the Concrete

What is especially relevant is that Balthasar's starting point in thinking about the God-world distinction is from within the concrete human relationship of love. The mother-child interaction is something that we all experience in some form. We know our mother is different from us and beyond us in some sense. We want to please her, but we don't want to have our individuality absorbed into a kind of pantheistic oneness. At the same time, we do not want to be alienated from her; we don't see ourselves as so different that there is no bond of commonality to unite us. This is a concrete human example of the analogy of being by which some aspects of two beings are similar and others distinct. It is the analogy of being on a universal scale that has allowed Christian theologians to see that the world contains qualities that are also in God, although they are finite in the world and perfect in God, all the while maintaining that the difference in God is infinitely greater.

The Implication of the Hypostatic Union

Balthasar recognizes that this philosophical reflection about the God-world distinction is limited, and that it is Christ's revelation that has opened up this analogy to its fullest truth. Christ reveals himself as the Son of God, one in being with the Father, who in his flesh has united human nature with his divinity. To appreciate the enormity of this, we must remember that the Father is infinite subsistent being and the Son receives this subsistent being in its entirety from the Father in his eternal begetting of the Son, whereas the human creature receives only finite nonsubsistent being. Thus an infinite distance exists between divine nature and human nature. Yet Christ crosses this distance in the hypostatic union, uniting in his person both the divine and human natures. This union of created and uncreated being opens up a concrete collaboration between begetting and creating. The Father's eternal begetting of the Son is included in the temporal incarnated begetting of Jesus that is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the created woman Mary. Mary's receptive "Let it be done unto me according to thy will," allows created human flesh to be united with the divinely begotten Son. The difference and likeness of created and divine being brought together in the person of Jesus Christ raises humanity in its finitude to an unexpected height.

Balthasar asserts that Christ is the analogy of being in person. (3) The hypostatic union in the person of Christ validates material creation as positive and overcomes the view of God as distant, alien, or indifferent. It also overcomes the tendency of religions either to create mythical gods that are only reflections of human and created realities or to collapse the world into divinity in pantheism. It is a true union of divinity and humanity while retaining the analogical relation of created and uncreated being: "The analogy of being becomes 'concrete and personal' in Christ. As fully human he reveals the true meaning of creation, and as fully divine he reveals the true meaning of God. The crucial point is that this twofold revelation occurs in and through the union of his person, even as that union requires an abiding difference between his human nature and his divine nature." (4)

What does this imply regarding human begetting and the problem of an abortion culture? The human father and mother beget another human being like themselves. But this child also is created directly by God as an image of himself. To better comprehend the implications for human begetting, we must first review trinitarian relationships. Recalling that in the love of the Father for the Son there always exists a third, the Holy Spirit, we see that God's fullness of being is always fruitful in a community of love between three persons. The Father is the person he is through giving his whole being in the eternal act of begetting the Son; the Son's personhood exists through receiving with gratitude his being from the Father; and the Holy Spirit is the person who exists as the specific outward expression of the love between the Father and Son, carrying forward its fruitfulness. Human begetting is created by God to reflect this trinitarian community of love. The human father and mother become fully themselves in giving themselves to each other in love and being receptive to love. When God chooses to create a new human life as the outward expression and fruitfulness of this love, a child is conceived. As in the creation of the universe when the Holy Spirit "hovered upon the face of the waters" (Gen 1:2), God "hovers" with parental and personal concern over the conception of each new human life. Thus sexual unity is naturally in collaboration with God's divine fruitfulness.

This fullness of divine trinitarian love includes the creation of the world and the mission of the Son to bring the world to the Father in his reciprocal gift of love. As Martin Bieler, Swiss Reformed theologian, has said, "Love has the diversity and multiplicity of being in mind which result from the total givenness of being." (5) Being is gift, giving itself away. We observe in organic life the fundamental law of fruitfulness in operation. Maria Montessori, anthropologist and educator, made the following observation about animal life: "If survival depended solely on the triumph of the strong, then the species would perish. So the real reason for survival, the principal factor in the struggle for existence, is the love of adults for their young." (6) Montessori also noted that human young, for whom childhood is the most extended, have the further task of uniting the spiritual world with the material world. For this reason, the protection of human young needs even more attention, intelligence, and reflection.
 Nature always sees to it that the child is protected. He is born
 of love, and love is his natural origin. Once born, he has the
 tender care of mother and father. This means that he is not
 born into discord, and that is his first defense from the world.
 Nature inspires both parents with love for their little ones, and
 this love is not something artificial. It is not just a love fed
 by reason, like the idea of brotherhood born of an intellectual
 wish to unite mankind. The love we find in infancy shows what
 kind of love should reign ideally in the grown-up world; a love
 able, of its own nature to inspire sacrifice, the dedication of
 one ego to another ego, of one self to the service of others.
 In the depth of their love, all parents renounce their own lives
 to dedicate them to their children. And this devotion is natural
 to them. It gives them joy and does not feel sacrificial. ...
 The child awakens what adults think of as an ideal; the ideal
 of renunciation, of unselfishness--virtues almost unreachable
 outside family life. (7)

These comments, written in the mid-twentieth century, may strike us as optimistic today considering the state of the family in the last few decades. Yet this scenario used to be taken for granted. What has happened in the meantime? Why is it that what is most natural is now sometimes seen as exceptional? The realities of legalized abortion and widespread contraception have changed our attitudes about the normality of accepting a child as a gift received with joy.

Balthasar considers the one-flesh union of a man and woman which bears fruit in a third human person as the primary analogue of the life of the Trinity. Since the I-Thou relationship of man and woman is spiritual as well as organic, it carries forward spiritual fruitfulness in child-bearing and -rearing. This triangle of love is grounded in the Divine Trinity, its source and archetype. This is the basic structure God has designed for human society. When a society approves aborting the third person of this triangle, begotten of the self-giving union of man and woman, it denies the fundamental law of fruitfulness of both organic and spiritual life originating in God. Christians, in particular, have a responsibility to live and communicate the trinitarian principle of love's fruitfulness at the root of all creation. Adrienne von Speyr describes this great mystery:
 God reveals himself as triune: one being in three Persons.
 The heart of this mystery remains ever beyond man's grasp.
 Nevertheless, the Creator created human beings as man and woman,
 and gave to them both the child; he placed them into a relationship
 that opens up beyond itself. When a man seeks a woman, he does
 so from the beginning in the expectation of starting a family.
 He already loves his children in the woman ... new life and
 new hope, which points to a new community. This is an image ...
 and everything is stretched out and transposed, not dead and
 disjointed; everything is living and pointing backward and forward
 and in every direction promising new life. (8)

The Ontology of Giving-Receiving Union

Christ's Incarnation reveals God's desire to unite human life to divine life in a most intimate union. That such an enormous difference as that between divinity and created being does not hinder personal union reveals not only that difference has a positive value but that it also calls forth love fulfilled in union and fruitfulness. Otherness is not a source of alienation but a call to love and creativity. Christ's concrete analogy of being "has to do with the eschatological ensheltering of the otherness of creation within the event of the Trinitarian processions," in the words of Nicholas Healy. (9) The Son alone does not accomplish this. According to Balthasar, the Holy Spirit has the mission of universalizing the concrete figure of Christ, which has the effect of including created being in the unique reality of the hypostatic union. The sacraments of baptism and matrimony, in particular, are the external signs of this concrete union with Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit that is oriented toward new redeemed life. The mission of Christ is to draw the whole of creation and history into unity with God as an image of the eternal triune life, and it is the Holy Spirit that Christ sends forth to accomplish this. Healy points out that "in the event of the Incarnation, the triune God does not merely help the world, but also discloses the innermost secret of His being. ... It is the drama of the emptying of the Father's heart in the generation of the Son that contains and surpasses all possible drama between God and the world." (10)

It is revealing that Christ entered into this union of created human nature and uncreated divine nature as an unborn child uniquely begotten of God while in a relationship of dependence on the acceptance by his mother who received him into her womb. He is the child who typifies the dependence and receptivity of the human condition. How can such receptivity and dependence come from God? Christ speaks about the state of childhood as the gate to the kingdom of God. How can such poverty of being, so much in need of help, relate to the perfection of divinity?

Balthasar explains that Christ has already experienced this receptivity and dependence in his relationship as Son to the Father. The Son has received all he is from the Father and recognizes his dependence on the Father: "My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me" (Jn 7:16). The Father in begetting the Son has poured out his whole being into his Son, such that all that is in the Father is in the Son. This is total self-giving in its ultimate, perfect form. The Father does not subtract anything from himself in the act of begetting but shares an unlimited wholeness. This image of generosity tells us that only in giving ourselves away do we truly find ourselves. It is the image of begetting that human fathers are called to imitate; the sign that giving life is not to be feared but bears the dignity of sharing in divine fertility. The divine Son's response to the Father's love is the model for receiving the gift of life in joyful gratitude.

Balthasar reminds us as well of Jesus's words, "Whoever welcomes one such a child in my name, welcomes me" (Mt 18:5):
 And suddenly we take a leap from this child to the unique child
 that Jesus himself is. And Jesus does not see in this any leap over
 an abyss but, on the contrary, a direct continuity. ... A child,
 therefore, is not merely a distant analogy for the Son of God:
 whoever turns with loving concern "to such a child" (any one
 out of hundreds of thousands), and does this, consciously or
 unconsciously, in the name of Jesus, of one mind with him--that
 person is welcoming the archetypical Child who has his abode
 in the Father's bosom. (11)

Balthasar points out that for Jesus,
 The condition of early childhood is by no means a matter of moral
 indifference and insignificance. Rather, the ways of the child,
 long since sealed off for the adult, open up an original
 dimension ... in a zone of hidden containment which cannot be
 derogated as "pre-ethical" or "unconscious," as if the child's
 spirit had not yet awakened or were still at the animal
 level--something it never was, not even in the mother's womb. ...
 Between the mother and the child she bears in her womb there
 exists an "archetypical identity," a unity which by no means is
 purely natural, "physiological" or "unconscious": the child is
 already itself, is already something "other" than the mother
 because it derives from the man's seed as much as from her ...
 the new life that surpasses them both, the new life that will
 owe its existence to both of them together but for which they,
 together, will always have to be thankful in the sight of the
 absolute creative Power that transcends them: "Children are
 a gift of the Lord" (Ps. 127:3). Neither father nor mother would
 pretend that their contribution has given the child its spirit,
 its freedom, its immediacy with God ... the idea that God has
 of him, the intention therefore that God wishes to realize with
 him. (12)

This reflection on the importance of childhood to Jesus reminds us that within the gift from the Father to the Son is the mission of the Son to the world. Jesus reminds his disciples that each child is a critical part of his mission and we ignore this at our peril (see Lk 17:2). The Son is "the first-born of all creation" and "all things were created through him and for him" (Col 1:15-17). The Father desires that every child might be born into His family in and through Christ.

The fact that the world is created within the relationship of the self-giving and -receiving love of the Father and the Son, bearing fruit in the activity of the Holy Spirit who also pours himself out for the world in unity with the Father and the Son, makes all the difference in how we view the world, other people, our relationship with God, and the end of human life. The Son, in obedience to the Father, accepts his mission with all the redemptive suffering it entails. The purpose of the Son's mission, and the desire of his love, is to give back to the Father the world redeemed through his blood and re-created in the Holy Spirit. In respect for our freedom, God remains dependent on our cooperation with this plan, on our willingness to be receptive to his sharing of his being. This reality is forgotten or ignored in a society that has lost sight of the purpose of concrete embodied human life and the sacredness of human fertility and sexual relations. A human couple bear in their flesh the inheritance of generations, personally bequeathed them by God, and hold future generations in their care. A realistic assessment of their organic body, as well as their spiritual relationships, tells them they are not isolated individuals but responsible members of a people desired by God. Children that are conceived in the one-flesh union of a man and woman are an outward sign of the unity of a past and future people. Each child from the moment of conception possesses both personal integrity and communal participation in the larger society. During sexual intercourse, the hormone oxytocin is released, creating a bond between the couple, encouraging them to stay together, both for their own sake and for the sake of a child that might be conceived. This is one instance of how we can see in the organic body itself that God's created structure is oriented toward a permanent and parental relationship.

Our remembering of these things must include recognition that the self-giving love that bears fruit includes sacrifice. Christ's suffering and death on the Cross, reflecting the original kenosis of the Father, revealed to us that "a capacity to suffer freely for another is not in itself negative but unveils the depths of the original self-surrender that is required to love the other as other. ... It is only when the gratuitous offer to love is sinfully rejected that a negative separation in the form of suffering enters the world." (13)

The most compassionate help for those tempted by abortion is to offer them the understanding that their fruitfulness is a reflection of the love of the Trinity, a sacred trust that calls them to cooperation with the creativity and eternal mission of God in and for the world. Their child has a destiny within this divine mission, as does the couple's love and union. All need reminding that the marital vow is the point of choice, the irrevocable commitment that protects both sexual love and childbearing. We must recover our understanding that the root of society is in the Father's begetting of the Son, bringing forth the fruit of the Holy Spirit. We must recognize that true fulfillment lies not in setting aside a child as a threat or inconvenience, but in giving ourselves away in imitation of the Father and in our receptivity to love with gratitude and obedience in imitation of the Son. In this way the Holy Spirit will free us of our sinful betrayal of the gift of begetting new life in fruitful love.


(1.) Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. V (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 616-17.

(2.) Hans Urs von Balthasar, "Movement Toward God," in Explorations in Theology III: Creator Spirit (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

(3.) Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theology of History (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 69-70.

(4.) Nicholas Healy, The Eschatology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Being as Communion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 91.

(5.) Martin Bieler, "Analogia Entis as an Expression of Love according to Ferdinand Ulrich," paper presented at the Analogy of Being Conference, Washington DC, April 4-5, 2008.

(6.) Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, (New York: Bucanner Books, Inc., 1967), 32.

(7.) Ibid., 31.

(8.) Adrienne von Speyr, Light and Images: Elements of Contemplation (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 143-45.

(9.) Healy, Eschatology, 137.

(10.) Ibid., 128, 131.

(11.) Hans Urs von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like This Child (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 10.

(12.) Ibid., 12, 16.

(13.) Ibid., 134.
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Author:Sweeney, Kathleen Curran
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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