Tag Archives: humanity

The Dignity of the Human Person – January 14, 2017

“When the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life.” (Evangelium Vitae, 21)

It is a perplexing fact of history that one of the world’s most prolific mass murderers, Adolf Hitler, was also a vegetarian who abhorred cruelty to animals. This conundrum was oddly revisited when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) ran a publicity campaign “Holocaust on Your Plate” in 2003 comparing caged farm animals to Jewish prisoners in Nazi death camps. As author Richard Weikart points out, ironically both the Nazis and PETA engaged in the fallacy of anthropomorphism, blurring the distinction between humans and animals. These are extreme examples, but highlight an underlying philosophical confusion in our modern era regarding the dignity of human life. Subsumed in this diminishment of human worth is an implicit denial of personhood.

This misanthropic view is unfortunately on the ascendancy in Western culture. To have a sense of this, one need only look at the recent outpourings of indignation and contempt at the killings of Cecil the lion and Harambe the gorilla. The flipside of overvaluing animal life can often be the devaluing of human life; the outrage over Cecil and Harambe stand in stark contrast to our culture’s complacency regarding abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, suicide and assisted-suicide. This “culture of death” is the negative underbelly of the modernist endeavor: recasting the human being as simply an ordinary animal who no longer merits ontological God-given dignity or teleological God-given purpose. Human life becomes expendable compared to the perceived greater good of the society or state, or the whimsy of the individual. The worth of the human person today has become obscured.

How did we get here?

Conflating the dignity of man and animal is but a symptom of the overall creeping confusion. A dimming appreciation for the specialness of man runs centuries deep, with incremental philosophical subversions to the foundations of true knowledge.

At its core, we are in a crisis of epistemology. The great breadth and depth of human knowledge have been sacrificed on the altars of skepticism and materialism. This modern epistemological error revolves around the denial of our true human nature as composite beings, of body and soul. The initial missteps of severing body and soul were philosophical.

Some trace the errors of modern secularism back to William of Ockham in the 14th century, who posited that universal essences, like humanity, are not real, but are only nominal extrapolations in our minds. Ockham theorized there are no universal forms but only individuals. This undermined part of our ability to explain objective reality. If there is no universal human form, or human nature, then we are deprived of fulfilling those ends of our nature and our teleological purpose. Once that is gone, it is not hard to imagine a confusion of personhood and a loss of ethics.

In the Enlightenment era, empiricists, like Locke and Hume, proposed that only the phenomenon of a thing could be known, and not the thing itself. Like Ockham, they rejected abstract knowledge of universals in favor of sense experience only. In other words, they dismissed our intellectual and spiritual knowledge for something akin to that of animals. Kant similarly conceded that we only know “things as known,” as interpreted by the mind, but not “things in themselves.” This “epistemological geocentrism,” as physicist Father Stanley Jaki called it, prevents us from having knowledge of God, the soul, and the full nature of reality.

Perhaps the most damaging blow to our understanding of our composite natures comes from biological materialism, in the form of Darwinism in the 19th century. Darwinian theory made strict biological materialism and scientism the predominant “acceptable” knowledge. No longer was there a need for the special creation of man by God, or the need for an immaterial soul or intellect. Man is just an evolved ape, created through blind forces, genetic mistakes, and the survival of the fittest. The severance of body and soul, begun in the philosophies of the previous centuries, was now complete. As Chesterton noted, “Evolution does not especially deny the existence of God; what it does deny is the existence of man.” Man was no longer a composite spiritual being, but mere physical creature.

This materialist reductionism had major repercussions on the modernist worldview and the dehumanizing of man. When the materialists finally seized power, Communist regimes, from Stalin to Mao to Pol Pot, murdered some 100 million people. Social Darwinism too had seeped into Western thought, sparking talk of people as “fit” and “unfit,” and races as “superior” and “inferior.” This was most pronounced in Nazi Germany, where racist notions were “proven” and “justified” by so-called science. Hitler had fully embraced this idea of evolutionary ethics in his march towards war and genocide.

The evidence of the past century has highlighted the fact that evolutionary ethics is no ethic at all. It undermines our moralistic certainty. Morality becomes very subjective, and in the spirit of the age, relativistic. Material reductionism altered people’s view on the sanctity of human life, by devaluing what it means to be human. The soul became merely an epiphenomenon of matter. In that sense, Christianity is at odds with strict Darwinian materialism, as opposed to the general theory of evolution, with which there is no conflict. This dogmatic materialism denies a priori even the possibility of final causality in man. It falsely stifles the reasonableness of belief in God, our moral compasses, and the knowledge of our selves as spiritual beings.

Sadly, this epistemological reductionism has not only persisted to the present day, but also increased. Although there is some progress against the culture of death, there remains a peculiar amnesia regarding the dignity of man, lingering in our cultural psyche. Not surprisingly, there has also been a concurrent falling away from the faith, as evidenced by record numbers of non-religious and atheists in recent polls (i.e., the “rise of the Nones,” so-called for listing “none” as their religious preference).

How are we as Catholics to respond? To start, we can reaffirm that there are many good, intellectual, and multifaceted reasons to believe. Christianity and belief in God are perfectly reasonable, despite protestations from modern scientific materialists and atheists. Science and theology, faith and reason are not opposed to each other, but are “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” (Fides et Ratio) In fact, there is available today more cutting-edge scientific data suggesting a Creator than ever before. What better confirmation is there, for example, of Aquinas’ cosmological argument for God as the prime mover than the Big Bang and the latest supporting evidence of cosmic microwave background radiation?

Christianity was built upon revelation, of course, but also upon reason. Jesus had commanded us to love God with “all your mind.” (Mt. 22:37) The intellectual tradition of the West, and its empirical science, is, after all, borne out of Christian civilization. The contention with modern secularism only arises with the materialist denial of God and the soul. It is a denial of our composite being. Atheism suffers from an epistemological defect of rejecting personhood. As Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum states, “It is the mind, or reason, . . . which renders a human being human, and distinguishes him essentially from the brute.” We should embrace the idea of personhood and the philosophy of personalism as part of our worldview and ethic, and as a bulwark against dehumanizing philosophies.

One of the greatest proponents of the modern philosophy of personalism was Pope John Paul II. Pope John Paul, then Karol Wojtyla, witnessed these dehumanizing forces of materialism firsthand in Poland, initially under Nazi occupation, and later under Soviet Communism. He was in the epicenter for both of these totalitarian outbursts, and observed what he called the “pulverization” of the human person. It was in reaction to these impersonalist philosophies and the subsequent political tyrannies that he helped lead a new philosophical movement and moral theology focused on the absolute dignity of the human person.

Wojtyla advocated for “Thomistic personalism,” a modern philosophy focused on the transcendent dignity of each person. His particular personalism was grounded in Thomas Aquinas’ classical metaphysics, and the cosmological view of man that we are set apart from the rest of creation by our rational nature and intellect.

Wojtyla sought to go beyond this, however, to explain the “totality of the person.” He recognized the great importance of the interior perspective to human experience. This interior perspective he referred to as “subjectivity,” experienced in each person’s consciousness, where no two are alike. Each person, then, is utterly unrepeatable, irreplaceable, incommunicable, and irreducible.

Pope John Paul spoke of this in practical terms, in his “personalist principle,” that the human being should always be treated as an end in itself, and never subordinated to another as a means to an end. Internalizing this principle would inevitably produce concrete practical applications, such as standing against slavery and human trafficking. But, it could also help turn the societal tide against normalizing this culture of death, with its impersonalist impulses, as recently witnessed in the Netherlands, euthanizing a man for being an alcoholic, or with Peter Singer, a utilitarian ethicist from Princeton, advocating for ending the lives of severely disabled infants.

As Catholics, we must always advocate for the inviolable dignity of the human person. This, of course, goes all the way back to Genesis when “God created man in His own image.” (Gen. 1:27) The magisterium echoes this by calling each of us “a sign of the living God, an icon of Jesus Christ.” (EV, 84) We have an interior transcendence in common with our Creator. Humans are relational and social beings, made in conformity to God, a trinity of intra-relational Persons.

As the image of God, there is a specialness to man. It sets us apart from the rest of creation. We alone can say “I.” No other animal, as wonderful as they are, can utter such a thing. They are bound by instinct. Even in the higher primates, as with the fascinating case of Koko the signing gorilla, the disparity remains immense. In the words of Pope John Paul, “an ontological leap” has to be made to span the “great gulf” that separates person from non-person. Man alone is capable of rational and abstract thought, free will, self-consciousness, moral action, complex language and speech, technological progress, higher purpose, altruism, love, creativity, prayer and worship. Man is different in degree and in kind, because God makes each person from the infiniteness of Himself. (CCC 2258)

In the New Testament, Jesus gives us the heart of personalism with His commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” For, as He later reveals, “as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” By embracing this notion of personalism in our lives, we liberate ourselves from our own egoism and coldness towards our neighbor. We see the face of God in each other. This is our vaccination against dehumanizing a person, and adopting a culture of life. It stands against the slide of centuries towards extreme skepticism and materialism, and calls us to draw again from a more complete knowledge. Materialism is only partially true. It denies the higher nature of our spiritual selves. By recognizing the image of God in each other we see the universal ontological value of each person, even down to the seemingly lowliest and weakest among us. It is for us to contemplate (and act upon), in light of Christ’s sacrifice, “how precious man is in God’s eyes and how priceless the value of his life” with “the almost divine dignity of every human being.” (EV, 25)

The Sanctifying Humanity of Jesus – December 17, 2015

“For in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in Him.” (Col.2:9)

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn.10:10)

Can you take a moment and try to imagine yourself standing before Christ while He was alive here on earth, or maybe imagine that He is standing in front of you right now wherever you are. What would He look like? He would appear as a man, for Jesus is a man, as the Creed says He became man. Jesus looked like you and like me. There did not seem to be anything noticeably or discernably different between Him and us. We can take Jesus’ neighbors from Nazareth as evidence of this. When Jesus had begun His public ministry, and began to reveal who He truly was, they “took offense at Him” and “were astounded” saying “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?” (Mt. 13:54,57) Jesus, it seemed to them, was an ordinary man, and only a man. They did not recognize that Jesus was something more. They did not fathom that He was even a prophet, much less the Son of God. Isaiah prophesied of Christ’s ordinariness writing, he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Is.53:2) Jesus looked common, nothing special in appearance. He was of humble social status too. Jesus performed the humblest type of work as a daily laborer. He was the son of a carpenter, and He Himself was a carpenter. Again, Jesus’ neighbors were perplexed by Christ asking, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And are not His brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all His sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” (Mt.13:55-56) They could not reconcile the juxtaposition of the ordinary neighbor who had lived among them with the great wisdom and power He was manifesting now. By every measure, according to His neighbors in Nazareth, Jesus was just a man. They, in fact, were partially right. As the Councils and Catechism declare, Jesus was “true man.” (CCC 464)

The part they missed, however, is that Jesus was also “true God.” He was both true God and true man.” (CCC 464) Jesus was not just an ordinary person that stood and lived in their midst. He was also the Son of God, the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity. Jesus the man was also the divine being, God-become-man. They saw perfectly the humanity of Christ, but failed to see His divinity. Yet, Jesus was fully God. As scripture says, “For in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” (Col. 2:9) The fullness of the Trinity dwelt in Christ. His earthly life was the autobiographical life of the Incarnated God. The thoughts of God were communicated through the voice of Christ. In the mystery of the hypostatic union, Christ’s earthly nature was united with His divine nature. The two natures together, human and divine, form the one theandric, divine person. The Catechism reinforces this saying Everything that Christ is and does in this nature derives from “one of the Trinity”. The Son of God therefore communicates to His humanity His own personal mode of existence in the Trinity. In His soul as in His body, Christ thus expresses humanly the divine ways of the Trinity.” (CCC 470) It is for this reason that St.Thomas can exclaim to the risen Christ, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28)  

Now, because the fullness of divinity dwelt in the person of Christ, every event, every circumstance, every word, every deed, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, takes on a divine significance and importance. There are no small actions for a God-man. Everything He would have done or said would be of divine significance. The divine Sonship of Christ imbued all of His actions with infinite value. The Catechism alludes to this saying “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption. Redemption comes to us above all through the blood of His cross, but this mystery is at work throughout Christ’s entire life.” (CCC 517) For Christ’s whole life, the infinite God performed finite human tasks, living as an ordinary man.  For thirty years, Jesus labored as a carpenter in silence and obedience to Mary and Joseph. The infinite vastness of Jesus’ divinity remained hidden under the auspices of His ordinary humanity, only to be revealed occasionally, and progressively, when He so chose, in His miracles and His healings, in His words, at the Transfiguration, in the Resurrection and Ascension. Jesus communicated His divinity to us through the lens of His humanity. He was able to save the human race precisely because He took on a body and soul as a human being when the Word became flesh. (Jn. 1:14) The mystery of redemption took place in the body of Christ, in His humanity, and because of His divinity. The Catechism calls this “His holy and sanctifying humanity.” (CCC 774) All of humanity and human nature was made holy and sanctified because God took on our nature and lived as one of us. The Church teaches, “The saving work of His holy and sanctifying humanity is the sacrament of salvation, which is revealed and active in the Church’s sacraments.” (CCC 774) Jesus’ human nature is the instrument for redeeming our human nature, which is why the Church calls it His “sanctifying humanity.” In Jesus’ sanctifying humanity, He performed finite actions, limited to a particular time and space. Yet, these finite actions were performed by a divine person, by which, giving them infinite moral value and efficaciousness, for all time and for all people.

Sanctifying grace is the true source of greatness for the believer. Without sanctifying grace our faith is meaningless. It is the transformative and life-giving power that Christ won for us in His life that can transform our ordinary lives and actions. Sanctifying grace is primarily conferred upon us through the sacraments. Baptism and Confirmation confer the Holy Spirit into our lives making us adopted children of God. Reconciliation and Eucharist sustain us with sanctifying grace from one day to the next, divinizing all of our activity in imitation of Christ for the glory of God. However, just as Christ’s divinity lay hidden in the workshop in Nazareth, so our life, as adopted sons and daughters, lay primarily interior and hidden. As Jesus tells us “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Lk. 17:21) St.Paul echoes this too, saying “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3) The Christian life is truly a supernatural life. It is our participation in the mysteries of Christ, making us partakers in the divine nature. (2 Pet.1:4) We are drawn into Christ’s mysteries through our faithful love and adoration of Christ, in contemplation, in reading the Bible, in the mass and liturgy, in the sacraments, in our prayer life, in our actions, in doing them with intentionality to please God. As John says, “from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (Jn.1:16) So that, through our contemplation and worship of the life of Christ and all His words and deeds, He may be able to reproduce them in us by the special grace attached to each of His deeds and actions. Christ’s whole life is a type of sacrament, imparting His sanctifying grace upon us in each of His actions. As Jesus walked through the masses of people “the crowd were trying to touch Him, for power came out from Him and healed all of them.” (Lk 6:19) Christ is a living Christ, with this same grace and power He had then, which still emanates forth from Him now into those that draw near to Him and dare to reach out for Him in faith.

The Catechism lucidly describes Christ’s sanctifying humanity and our communion with His mysteries. It is worth quoting at length:

All Christ’s riches “are for every individual and are everybody’s property.” (Redemptor Hominis, 11) Christ did not live His life for Himself but for us, from His Incarnation “for us men and for our salvation” to His death “for our sins” and Resurrection “for our justification”. He is still “our advocate with the Father”, who “always lives to make intercession” for us. He remains ever “in the presence of God on our behalf, bringing before Him all that He lived and suffered for us.”

In all of His life Jesus presents Himself as our model. He is “the perfect man” who invites us to become His disciples and follow Him. In humbling Himself, He has given us an example to imitate, through His prayer He draws us to pray, and by His poverty He calls us to accept freely the privation and persecutions that may come our way.

Christ enables us to live in Him all that He Himself lived, and He lives it in us. “By His Incarnation, He, the Son of God, has in a certain way united Himself with each man.” We are called only to become one with Him, for He enables us as the members of His Body to share in what He lived for us in His flesh as our model:

“We must continue to accomplish in ourselves the stages of Jesus’ life and His mysteries and often to beg Him to perfect and realize them in us and in His whole Church. . . For it is the plan of the Son of God to make us and the whole Church partake in His mysteries and to extend them to and continue them in us and in His whole Church. This is His plan for fulfilling His mysteries in us.   (St.John Eudes)

The mysteries that Christ lived in the flesh are our mysteries too. They are meant for us. We can unite ourselves each day with them. His divine, sanctified humanity, which conquered death, gives eternal life to our mortal humanity. This is the whole point. We are doomed to die, but in Christ we have the blessed hope of resurrection and eternal life. And, how should we live? We can habituate ourselves to try to please God in all things, even the smallest of our actions, in order to be united with Christ in all that we do. This is a key to the sacramental life, living with the intentionality of pleasing God. This will orient all of our activity towards God, and unite our lives with the life of Christ. He will recreate His mysteries within us. Just think, even more so than adoring the life of Christ, Christ’s very own sanctifying humanity – His divine essence as manifested in His flesh – lives on with us, even now, He is still here, in the real presence of the Eucharist. We can merge ourselves with His sacred humanity and His sanctifying grace by consuming His body and blood in reception of the Eucharist, our Holy Communion. Then, Christ will live within our dying bodies and souls, His sanctifying humanity transfiguring our humanity, and resurrecting us to eternal life.