Tag Archives: Pope John Paul II

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 Octave of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday – March 25, 2016

Easter Sunday is not the end of our Easter celebration. After forty days of preparation with Lent, and the Easter Triduum, from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, it is easy to miss looking ahead on the Church’s liturgical calendar. This is, after all, the climax of the Christian year with the celebration of the Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Catechism calls Easter the “Feast of feasts” and the “Solemnity of solemnities.” Yet, Easter Sunday is actually just the first day of the Easter Octave, the eight-day festal period, in which we continue to celebrate the momentous conclusion to the Paschal mystery and the economy of salvation played out in liturgical time. The eight days of the Easter Octave are a special time to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection and more deeply contemplate its mysteries. The Church punctuates the special importance of this feast by assigning it the highest liturgical ranking, that is, as a Privileged Octave of the First Order. This means each of the eight days is counted as a solemnity, the highest-ranking feast day, in which no other feast can be celebrated. It begins the fifty days of the Easter celebration to the feast of Pentecost, but these first eight days of the Easter Octave culminate with the second Sunday of Easter: Divine Mercy Sunday.

It is entirely fitting that Divine Mercy Sunday is the culmination of the Easter Octave, for as St. Pope John Paul II stated in his Divine Mercy Sunday homily in 2001, “Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity..” Divine mercy is the grace and merit won by Christ on our behalf in His Passion and Resurrection. The grace of Easter naturally flows into Mercy Sunday. Even before the official designation, the Church has historically designated these eight days of Easter to celebrate the Paschal mysteries of divine mercy. The early Church celebrated the Sunday after Easter as the feast day, Dominica in Albis depositis, “the Sunday dressed in white linen.” St. Augustine is attributed to have called it “the compendium of the days of mercy.” Indeed, in his Regina Caeli address on Divine Mercy Sunday on April 26, 1995, Pope John Paul II said “The whole Octave of Easter is like a single day,” and that Octave is “thanksgiving for the goodness God has shown man in the whole Easter mystery.” In these eight feast days, we offer thanksgiving for the divine mercy and salvation wrought for us on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

The modern Divine Mercy devotions began with the Polish mystic, St. Faustina Kowalska, who dutifully recorded in her well-known diary, everything that Christ commissioned to her regarding His Divine Mercy. These devotions included the spiritual practices of venerating the image of Divine Mercy, with its simple prayer “Jesus, I trust in You!,” praying the Chaplet and Novena of Divine Mercy, and establishing Divine Mercy Sunday. St. Pope John Paul II said he had felt spiritually “very near” Saint Faustina, and he had “been thinking about her for a long time,” when he began his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, “Rich in Mercy,” in which he calls mercy “love’s second name.” It is not surprising then that he later, on April 30 2000, at the canonization ceremony of St. Faustina, designated the Easter Octave, Divine Mercy Sunday.

It is fitting that Divine Mercy is a continuation of Easter because of its inherently Paschal and Eucharistic imagery. In the Divine Mercy image, Jesus is pictured with two rays of light coming from His heart, one red and one white. These depict the blood and water, which flowed forth from His heart after He was pierced by a lance on the Cross. The red ray of light reminds us of the blood of the Cross, and the blood of the Eucharist; whereas, the white ray of light reminds us of the waters that flowed from His pierced-side, and the waters of Baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The image embodies the Paschal and Eucharistic mysteries.

In the Divine Mercy Chaplet and Novena there are similar Paschal and Eucharistic overtones. In the Divine Mercy prayers we offer up to the Father, the “Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity” of Our Lord Jesus Christ, “in atonement for our sins and for those of the whole world.” This hearkens us back to Holy Thursday, when Jesus instituted the first Mass, offering up His Body and Blood in the Eucharist; and then, on Good Friday, He suffered Bodily and Spiritually in His Passion and Crucifixion. The Divine Mercy prayers walk us through this same prayer language in Paschal and Eucharistic imagery. This is why we pray “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy upon us and the whole world,” for through His suffering, we have gained mercy. The Divine Mercy prayers encapsulate the Paschal mystery and the Eucharistic offering.

Therefore, we continue to celebrate the Paschal and Eucharistic mysteries in these eight days of Easter, culminating with the Easter Octave of Divine Mercy Sunday. Christ has promised us great mercies if we observe the Feast of Divine Mercy. As Jesus told St. Faustina, “I want to grant a complete pardon to the souls that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion on the feast of My mercy.” This is a particularly great indulgence promised by Jesus for the complete remission of our sins and punishment. So, as we celebrate Easter, let us recall the spark that came from Poland with Sts. Faustina and Pope John Paul II, and put mercy into action by dedicating ourselves to the devotions associated with its message: the image of Divine Mercy, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the Novena of Divine Mercy, and the Sunday of Divine Mercy. Easter Sunday is not the end of the Church’s celebration. It is the beginning of the full Octave of Easter. Let us celebrate all eight days of this feast, all the way to Divine Mercy Sunday. How fitting it is, especially this Jubilee year, the Holy Year of Mercy.