Being Open to Life—Abstract Norm, or Embodied Word?

We have a temptation to separate a moral norm from its existential reality and, in so doing, to imagine that we have “an abstract norm”1 instead of an “embodied bioethical word”. In the very transposition of the concrete, incarnate, bioethical word of “being open to life” to an abstract norm, being open to life is no longer an expression of the whole human being in whom it is to be found. On the one hand, then, a “moral norm” can be abstracted from the whole human being of which it is an integral part and, in the process, it becomes a “moral principle” without root or natural expression in human being; and, on the other hand, even when being open to life is recognized to be an integral expression of human being, it is necessary to recognize that it points beyond the virtue of integral truth to the requirement of the help of God to live it. In other words, being open to life, while an intelligible expression of the mystery of human personhood, intrinsically requires the full truth of the human person to be liveable: the full truth being that God makes possible what is impossible to human beings (cf. Lk 1: 37).

It is possible, then, to think of a moral norm as if it were an external imposition, a kind of rein on human behavior which, unless exercised, results in a certain kind of wildness: as if virtue is an imposition of what is, as it were, an unnaturally external restraint; and, if we do, we are in danger of imagining that moral norms exist independently of actual human beings: real human people and their relationships. Alternatively, if an action is described as intrinsically wrong, can it lead to a ‘black and white’2 understanding of human morality: as if understanding an action to be intrinsically wrong necessarily leads to an insensitivity to the subtleties of conscience expressed in lived human lives. On the one hand, it is possible to be insensitive to the actual reality of transgressing a moral norm, the elements that disguise, mitigate or impoverish human responsibility; and, therefore, it is always necessary to be able to listen to the actual reality of a human person, as lived in a concrete act, to determine how to help him or her to live the fullness of human personhood to which we are all called. On the other hand, acknowledging the concrete circumstances of an actual human act does not dissolve the reality of human personhood which is either fulfilled or frustrated in human action. In other words, while the recognition of human culpability admits of many degrees and complexities, the reality of human being is what, in itself, determines an action to be what it is. Thus, even if, in a particular case, there are factors which mitigate against a person understanding the harm that he or she is doing, there is nevertheless an objective truth of the human person which explains, ultimately, the nature of a human action as harmful or beneficial to the human being.

What, then, is the Church’s expression of “being open to life”? (Part I). What is the reality that this teaching is seeking to communicate? (Part II). What makes the help of God necessary to living the full truth of human marriage (Part III).

Part I: “Being open to life” in the teaching of the Church
There are many expressions in the teaching of the Church which help us to see that the Holy Spirit has guided her to grasp what God has brought about in the creation of the human being: the human being who is a “being-in-relationship”: in relationship to God and to others: a relationship in which morality is as integral to fellowship as communication is to communion. In what follows, then, there is a brief collation of a number of ways that the Church has begun to elucidate the word God has embodied in the one flesh of married life (cf. Mt 19).

Glimpsing the Whole of Human Being
Being open to life is integral to the whole of marriage: “…any use whatever of marriage must retain its natural potential to procreate human life” (Humanae Vitae, 11).

“This particular doctrine … is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (12). Thus, in the context of the whole document, Blessed Paul VI is elucidating an understanding of the integral nature of the human person: that husband and wife are ministers “of the design established by the Creator” (13).3

The doctrine of Humanae Vitae exists is in the context, however, of the renewed understanding of marriage as biblically and personalistically expressed in the Second Vatican Council: “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” (Gaudium et Spes, 48). Thus, there is the triple emphasis on what is “established by the Creator,” biblically understood as a “conjugal covenant” and entails each person’s “irrevocable personal consent.” Moreover, understanding the truth of the human person can be further understood to take account of the wholeness of human being in the following ways. On the one hand, “The total physical self-giving would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving, in which the whole person, including the temporal dimension, is present: if the person were to withhold something, or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving total” (Familiaris Consortio, 11); and, on the other hand, the whole human being is to be understood as “the person himself in the unity of soul and body, in the unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations and of all the other specific characteristics necessary for the pursuit of his end” (Veritatis Splendor, 48; but cf. also Familiaris Consortio, 11).

The point, then, of this summary of the teaching of the Church is that it indicates, within the limits of these expressions, that there is a whole human reality, one in body and soul (Gaudium et Spes, 14), which communicates what is “established by the Creator” (Gaudium et Spes, 48). St. John Paul II goes on to say that “Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological. It is only through the duality of the masculine and the feminine that the human finds full realization” (Letter to Women, 7); and that this relationship is “a relational ‘uni-duality,’ which enables each to experience their interpersonal and reciprocal relationship as a gift which enriches and which confers responsibility” (8).

Part II: What is the Reality that this Teaching is Seeking to Communicate?
The horizon entailed in the gift of fertility “entails a certain openness to the gift of a child from the Author of life; and, in view of that very uncertainty, indicates a natural attitude of ‘gratitude’ for the gift of a child” (cf. Gn 4: 1). Furthermore, even if “there are reasonable grounds for spacing births” (Humanae Vitae, 16), “the very psycho-spiritual attitude inscribed in the marital act disposes the spouses to accept an unplanned gift of another child. Thus, there is a pro-life attitude which is inseparable to the marital act; indeed, it is as if the pro-life attitude and spousal action are the inward and outward expression of love.”4

If we follow the direction of these observations, they lead us to considering the unity-in-diversity of law: law that integrally embodies love and expresses the mystery of the Creator’s personal communion in the one flesh of marriage.

What, then, is the unity-in-diversity of law? On the one hand, it is possible to think of law as an invention of human beings, an imposition on what exists, and an obstruction to freedom. But on the other hand, the law of gravity is “embodied” in the relationship between big and small objects. In other words, the law of gravity is not an imposition on what exists, it actually arises out of what exists. Just as the laws of the universe exist to be discovered, so discovering the laws of nature does not “cause” them to exist. What is more, without the law of gravity, it would not be possible to do many things; indeed, it is as if the very relationships between different sizes and types of matter is a kind of framework for the activity of each day: a kind of parable about the law of God providing a framework for the flourishing of human beings. But, just as what exists becomes conscious in human beings, so the universal laws of nature are “personalized” in the natural law: the law we draw upon to express reason’s recognition of the enduring reality of what exists.5

Similarly, the internal structure of the human person exists in itself; but, through the process of investigation, it is possible to recognize that the internal structure both exists, and exists as a uniquely personal expression of the whole human being. In the internal structure of the human being there is what regulates growth, development, digestion, recreation, and work; and, as we act according to the needs of hunger, warmth, and rest, so we help the natural processes that contribute to our day. Although, in general, it is possible to recognize that these processes are regulated, and that their activity is usually unconscious, there is nevertheless a coming into consciousness of what is otherwise ongoing and helpful; and, indeed, our conscious participation in what is otherwise unconsciously regulated brings about the ingredients which sustain us in our daily lives, and help us to recognize what needs to remedied or addressed.

Psychologically, too, as the human being’s biological development unfolds, so the implicit processes of thinking, feeling, willing, communicating, and doing can develop and unfold; and, incrementally, just as the child begins to walk and to talk, so the relationship between parents and child is stimulated and challenged to become conscious and articulate.

Conversely, where there is a repression of experience, and our reactions to it, so there is a corresponding frustration of human development and relationships. In other words, there are internal psychic principles which, like the biological and physical expressions of human activity, are a part of the dynamic development of human beings-in-relationship.

When, it comes to marriage then, and the outward expression of a love determined to be lived in spousal communion, the individuality of being a man and a woman enters into a dynamic whole, bringing with it all the ingredients of being male and female; and, therefore, the dynamic of married love arises out of the reciprocal self-gift of each to the other in the fullness of being husband and wife. The spirituality of love, drawing upon its psycho-physical structure, makes the spouses conscious of an attitude that fulfills the act of marriage: an attitude that is inscribed in the very self-giving of spousal love, and is expressed in the embrace of love being open to life—even if there is no possibility of the transmission of life. In other words, inscribed within the very dynamic and dialogue of marriage is the willingness, if the celebration of marriage is begun, to cooperate in what will bring the spouses so indescribably close, and simultaneously, leave open the possibility of the transmission of life.

Thus, just as there is an outward coming together in the celebration of marriage, so there is an interior attitude which seeks the fulfillment of the other in the utter gift of oneself. Integral, then, to the reciprocal gift of self is being open to the transmission of life as an inseparable expression of being wholly given to the other, and being wholly received by the other. In other words, deeply within the dynamic of loving, is the mystery of life from love: that from the gift of self, arises the possibility of the gift of a child; and, even if that possibility bears within it the trace of uncertainty, this helps to dispose the spouses to see the child as a gift—a gift in the receiving just as spousal love is a gift in the giving. This embodied word of gift, both expressing an interior psycho-spiritual attitude to the reciprocal gift of spousal love, is itself a gift of the Creator expressing uniquely the eternal giving at the heart of the Blessed Trinity.

Part III: What Makes the Help of God Indispensible to Living the Full Truth of Marriage?
To begin with, then, we cannot really understand the “one flesh” of marriage if we do not read the indications which point us to the inner life of the Being of the Blessed Trinity. In other words, ultimately, the one flesh of marriage expresses the personal reality of man, male and female, being “one being” in the mystery of communicating life through the action of the Creator; and, as such, God has manifested in the flesh an expression of the mystery of His own being—at once a singular and a dynamically fruitful communion. Thus, in the end, the only credible explanation of man, male and female, forming the fruitful communion of marriage is that this expresses the interpersonal reality of the Blessed Trinity. On the one hand, God is the uniquely singular Being; and, on the other hand, there are three persons in one God. Thus, God is both uniquely personal and each Person is, as it were, open to the life of the Other: an interpersonal communion that is also a kind of mystery of “person from person.”

The law of the inseparability of the “unitive significance and the procreative significance” (Humanae Vitae, 12) of the marriage act is love’s self-expression in the flesh of human marriage. The very “relational being” of the Blessed Trinity is translated into the one flesh of marriage as an incarnate expression of the reality of the Blessed Trinity. Just, then, as the first man and the first woman were created in relationship to God, so God anticipated, through this, the coming of Christ and His Church. It is not as if, then, the origin of man, male and female, is “independent” of the whole of salvation history; rather, the spiritual significance of Adam, from the ground, and Eve, from the side of Adam, is a kind of threefold sign. It looks back into the mystery of “person” from “person” in the Blessed Trinity; it looks into the depths of human personhood and embraces “difference,” “complementarity” and “fruitfulness;” and it looks forward to the manifestation of Christ and the Church.

It is clear, then, that if the ultimate explanation of marriage is the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, then just as the inner-life of the Blessed Trinity is its origin and ground, so the very life of the Blessed Trinity is expressed in the Sacrament of Marriage. Living the gift of marriage, then, is not only living an inseparable communion of being one flesh it is also living the vocation of marriage out of the life of the Blessed Trinity; indeed, the whole sacramentality of marriage, in a certain sense, is as if the life of the Blessed Trinity is lived in us. Grace, then, is not some kind of oil, grease, or fuel; it is, as it were, the life of God lived in us. This life that God lives in us makes living the gift of marriage, and family life, possible.

In Conclusion
Finally, to be open to life is an “embodied ethical word.” It is the word of the Creator enfleshed in human being, and realized in marriage. Being open to life, then, needs the whole Christian life like the mystery of the Blessed Trinity needs the whole reality of being God to be lived. Just, then, as being open to life cannot be understood without reference to the whole of reality, neither can it be abstracted from the whole of human reality if it is to be intelligibly understood as an embodied word of living love, enfleshed in human marriage. Furthermore, just as marriage exists in the context of the whole of salvation history, so it benefits from the call to conversion (cf. Humanae Vitae, 29): the graced call which enacts in us the fulfillment of the promised covenant of love to which God calls us.

It is impossible, however, to “abstract” our lives from the history of salvation and, therefore, God finds us where we are, and takes us where we cannot go.6 At the same time, however, as He seeks to establish in us the gift of becoming what we cannot be without Him (cf. Jn 15: 5), God progresses the revelation in human history that began at Creation and will unfold until the end of time; that is, the revelation that human being, in all its fullness, cannot be understood except in the light of God (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 36). Therefore, there is a “word of God” embodied in human being which is as stable, enduring, and ever open to a deeper understanding as the mystery of God Himself being the Blessed Trinity.

In the end, if these precepts are a true expression of embodied love, they cannot be understood except in relation to the fullness of human life (cf. Jn 15: 1-11; cf. Jn 10: 10) that manifests the fullness of human being; and, furthermore, the validity of a precept derives from the embodied word of God, and not from the process through which we come to appreciate and understand it. Although, it has to be said that the process through which we come to appreciate and to understand the fullness of God’s gift to us is an intimate part of the way that God brings us, together with others, to the fullness of truth.

There is an embodied word that the Creator has expressed in the act of creation, a word which is discernible to reason, and evident in Revelation. So, even if there is a subjective inability, blindness, or the possibility of misreading it, the objectivity of the act of God has established this word as an intrinsic part of His dialogue with each and every one of us. Even in view of the pastoral challenge of how to communicate the truth established by God in creation to a generation that is probably very shrouded in uncertainty, it is a very real need to be addressed. But, in the process, there does remain the goal of knowing reality and ourselves as a part of it in a way which preserves the possibility of coming to the full truth to which we are all called.

Ultimately, then, it may be necessary to admit that reason needs faith to be itself in order for it to be open to the full truth of human being; and, if reason needs faith, then faith needs to be itself, too, and to be formed from the gift of preaching, revelation, witness, conversion, and the sacramental life of the Church. This faith that God can make the barren fruitful (cf. Gn 15: 1-6), that God can pass through closed doors (cf. Jn 20: 19-23), that God can make a history of salvation out of a history of sin, is the faith of Abraham, Mary, and the Church 7 in the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death, resurrection, and sending of the Holy Spirit.

  1. Although the expression, ‘abstract norm’ (, is in current usage, the use of it in this essay is more about contrasting it with an ‘embodied word’ than with a precise account of how others are using it.
  2. Cf.
  3. “Being open to life” does not imply that every marital act will bring about the conception of a child (11). But because being open to life is inseparable from spousal love, being open to life does imply that there will be no use of ‘force’ in marriage nor can a spouse deliberately ‘impair …. the design established by the Creator’ (13).

    More fully, Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote, in Humanae Vitae, of love as ‘fully human, a compound of sense and spirit’; of ‘a love which is total – that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything …. {and} loves that partner for their own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with gift of himself’; of a ‘married love’ that ‘is faithful and exclusive of all other, this until death’ (9). At the same time, ‘responsible parenthood’ takes account of ‘biological processes involved’, ‘innate drives and emotions’ and ‘expresses the domination which reason and will must exert over them’ and, moreover, attends to ‘relevant physical, economic, psychological and social conditions’, all of which is brought to perfection by a ‘right conscience’ interpreting the ‘objective moral order established by God’ (10). Furthermore, ‘in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law … teaches as absolutely required that any use whatever of marriage must retain its natural potential to procreate human life’ (11).

  4. Volume I-Faithful Reason (of the trilogy From Truth and truth), Lady Stephenson Library, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016, p. 176.
  5. Cf. A much more extended discussion of this on the basis of texts from both St. John Paul II and St. Thomas Aquinas: Chapter Three of Volume I-Faithful Reason, 2016.
  6. This is my reading of the pastoral love expressed in Amoris Laetitia; cf. also The Human Person: A Bioethical Word, enroutebooksandmedia, 2017, pp. 23-24. Nevertheless, I am aware of the controversy that surrounds this document; but, in that truth cannot contradict truth, it is necessary to recognize what is valid even if, in the process, it challenges us to renew our hold on what we know to be true. In a word, addressing people in the plight of an incomplete grasp of their subjectivity does not invalidate the goal of objective truth to which God calls us.
  7. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, (CCC), 142-149 etc.
Francis Etheredge About Francis Etheredge

Mr. Francis Etheredge is married with eight children, plus three in heaven. He is the author of Scripture: A Unique Word and a trilogy, From Truth and Truth (Cambridge Scholars Publishing); The Human Person: A Bioethical Word (En Route Books & Media, 2017), with forewords from eight writers; The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends (2018); and Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, with contributions from ten other authors, as well as The Prayerful Kiss (2019); Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration (2020); Honest Rust and Gold: A Second Collection of Prose and Poetry (2020), Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers (2021), Unfolding a Post-Roe World (2022), Reaching for the Resurrection: A Pastoral Bioethics (2022), Human Nature: Moral Norm, Lord, Do You Mean Me? A Father-Catechist! (2023), A Word in your Heart: Youth, Mental Health, and the Word of God (2023), and An Unlikely Gardener: Prose and Poems.

Francis is currently a freelance writer and speaker and his “posts” on LinkedIn can be viewed here. A radio interview can be heard here.

He has earned a BA Div (Hons), MA in Catholic Theology, PGC in Biblical Studies, PGC in Higher Education, and an MA in Marriage and Family (Distinction). He is a collaborator of the Dignitas Personae Institute for Nascent Human Life.


  1. Avatar Mike Neely says:

    Such a bold fleshing out of what it means being open to life. I enjoyed your fleshing out on our false perception of two norms which in fact are one. How do we synthesize this into a simpler message for the masses to consume?

  2. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Dear Mike Neely, thank you for your helpful question.

    A gift is well wrapped, attractive and a thoughtful expression of the giver; and, at the same time, there is a “moment” to give: a birthday; an anniversary; getting married. The present is “within” and, at the same time, the outward expression of it is of a promise of what is good. There is, in the words which express our giving, a natural “liturgy” which celebrates an irrevocable “opening” in the giving and receiving of the gift.

    We have received the gift of ourselves from God; and, pondering the fact that each one of us is a gift, leads us to think of God as “Gift from Gift”. Just as the Father gives himself wholly to the Son and the Son, together with the Father, give themselves wholly to the Holy Spirit, so God gives himself wholly to us; and, in God giving himself wholly to us, he brings to life the possibility of giving ourselves wholly to him and to each other in the mystery of marriage.

    But just as God does not take back the gift of himself, so the giving of himself in Jesus Christ and his Church renews the original gift of man, male and female; and, in the renewal of redemption, lies the renewal of the celebration that each one of us is a gift to be given.