Pope John Paul II

The New Evangelization and the Human Person

Saint John Paul II said that the crisis of our time is at root, a crisis of the human person.  We no longer understand who we are because we have denied our identity as created in the image of God.  Moreover, as a society, we have effectively denied God.  John Paul II warned that when man denies God, man becomes an enigma to himself and soon ends up turning against himself.  Success in the New Evangelization demands evangelizers and society retrieve an adequate anthropology.  Before outlining this adequate anthropology, it is important to outline some errors about the human person of which we should be aware.

The history of man has manifested a plurality of errors about the human person; societies of every age have borne the burden of their wretched fruit.  The errors about man in times past can be roughly grouped into two opposing poles.  On the one hand, we have materialism, the ideology that man is nothing but matter.  This is an ancient idea, and it wishes man to believe that he is nothing more than an animal, however intelligent.  The other pole, also very ancient in origin, says that man is really pure spirit or even a god.  In this view, the body is either a prison or simply an illusion, both of which must be overcome.  Both of these errors have led to a general denigrating of the body and so a diminution of the human person.  The errors never go away; they simply reprise themselves in different forms.

Contemporary man has reached a new crisis in this regard.  Not only have these errors resurfaced (in an erroneous view of science, on the one hand, and in various religions and new age spiritualities, on the other), one might argue that they have spawned a new anti-synthesis. Contemporary western society consists, on the one hand, of believers (even many Christians) and others who consider themselves “spiritual” who, following their philosophical antecedents, see the body as a prison or illusion to be surmounted.  However, society is dominated by the opposite philosophical error, materialism.  However, it is not consistently materialistic.  We are seeing a newer anthropological error, arising from atheistic ideologies.  This new error proposes what one might call “incarnalism.”  Incarnalism, if we may, explicitly says man is just an animal, but revealing an interior contradiction, it proposes doctrines that presuppose man’s uniqueness among the animals, his spiritual faculties.  Incarnalism wishes to permit sexual license by reducing man to the animal aspect of his nature, which at the same time recognizes the special nature of sex with another self that is qualitatively different than could be had with sub-personal animals.  It also makes reference to the spiritual aspect of man’s nature, in terms of his intellect.  It is fearful of man’s freewill and his ability to transcend his environment.  This fear moves it very quickly to misanthropic extremes, at its worst, considering humans vermin that are a plague on nature and in need of being culled or eliminated.  But the same incoherence appeals to man’s common concerns for one another in order to be willing to restrain himself in his actions for the common good (however undefined) of others and of the environment.

This error wants to preserve the meaning of the human person in ways that are parasitic on western society’s Christian patrimony, but at the same time, it wants to deny any moral obligations propounded by Christianity of a certain type, namely sexual morality.  However, an important consideration is that the error is more practical than ideological, and because it is promoted as a practice rather than an ideology, its proponents do not feel a need to justify its intellectual coherence.  Its unstated presupposition is that the meaning of the human person is fundamentally whatever meaning the individual wants to give it for himself.  In this way, it is thoroughly a post-modern heresy.  Because its proponents do not see a need to justify it, it can be difficult to counter.

An adequate anthropology is essential for understanding and countering these present problems in society.  Such an anthropology begins with an authentic, metaphysical tradition even if the average contemporary person may be many steps removed from being able to respond positively to this tradition (for more on this see The New Evangelization and Pre-evangelization).  The Church’s teaching on the human person is such an adequate anthropology, perhaps best described in a systematic way by Thomist anthropology.  St. Thomas Aquinas based his metaphysical description of the human person in terms of a Christian hylomorphism.  In hylomorphism, every material entity is a unity of form (the immaterial aspect) and matter (the material aspect).  The hylomorphic entity is a single, unified nature consisting of two inextricable aspects, form and matter.  Both aspects, because they are one seamless thing come into existence simultaneously, as two co-principles.  As co-principles, you do not have one without the other; if either is sufficiently damaged, the whole is annihilated.  The form is the principle, the origin, of existence, shape and locomotion.  The matter is the principle of individuation, change and potential for change.  This radical unity of nature means that whatever happens to the form, happens also to the matter in some way, and vice versa.

The human person is hylomorphic; he is a body-soul unity.  To be human means to be both body and soul.  We are not a soul imprisoned in a body to be someday liberated, or just a body.  We are not even the joining together of a pre-existing body with a pre-existing soul.  The human person is a unified, seamless nature of a body and soul that come into existence simultaneously.  As with all hylomorphs, there is a mutuality between the body and soul; whatever happens to the body also happens to the soul, and vice versa.  The soul is everywhere the body is.  St. John Paul II said that the body makes the soul visible.  When we see the body, we see, in a real sense, the soul, and so we see the whole person.  Yet, for Thomas, the soul was much more than Aristotle could envision in his hylomorphic theory.  This implies that the same is true for the body as well.  For Thomas, the soul is created immediately by God.  In the category of substance, the soul’s rational faculties (the intellect and the will) are the way in which man most closely resembles God.  Moreover, the soul is immortal, implying the same initial destiny for the body, before the fall.  This body-soul unity and its implications are essential for understanding what is necessary for an authentic anthropology, one that gives the proper dignity to the human person who is a body-soul unity.

One implication of a body-soul unity for the human person in light of Christian revelation is that the “person” must be distinct from the body itself.  It must also be distinct from the soul itself and even distinct from the body-soul unity itself.  This is implied by Trinitarian theology (where the divine Persons are in the category of Relation) and from Christology in which the Person of the Son joins Himself to a human body-soul unity, but in which no human person arises (thus Jesus Christ is one divine Person, joining His divine nature to His human nature).  It is the person who possesses his body-soul; it is the person who comes to know, to will, to act, to love and to sin.  It is the person who comes to express himself in the world and to relate, well or poorly, to others and to God.  Personhood is where the center of being resides; it is the person who is responsible for his actions or inaction. 

Being made in the image of the Trinitarian God provides additional, important insights about the human person, his motivations and his authentic ends.  God is a radical unity of nature; in God, there is one infinite, perfect nature that is fully possessed by three Divine Persons.  These Persons are their relationships, the Father is His Fatherhood, for example.  This means that God is a radical unity of Persons, whose being is ordered to the other (e.g. the Son is Son because of the Father).  Man is made in the image of this Trinitarian family, and so one can see that as a person, man is ordered to relationships with others.  However, in his body, man is individual, yet he cannot fulfill himself as a person outside of authentic relationships of communion with others.  Man is made for communion with God and other human beings.  Authenticity in relationships is defined by the archetype of the divine Persons.  God is love as St. John says (1 John 4:8, 16).  The Trinitarian Persons define love by their total existence for the Other; they give themselves totally one to the other.  We are created in this image for love—to receive and to give love.  Authentic relationships are characterized by communions of total self-gift, by love.  Love is to give ourselves fully to God and to one another in disinterested love (i.e. total self-gift).  Disinterested means that I give myself to others for their own sake regardless of what I get out of the relationship; it is willing and acting for the good of the other. Yet we are fallen.

In our fallen state, love becomes an arduous task.  Before the fall, authentic relationships of communion were natural realities of life; after the fall, they now require hard work.  Love requires self-mastery, a life of virtue, so that we may fully possess ourselves.  We cannot give ourselves away totally to anyone if we do not first possess ourselves.  However, we must be able to give ourselves freely; one cannot compel love.  So man must be provided “the room” within society to master himself in such a way that he can enter into authentic relationships, that is, relationships of communion with God and with others.  Yet this room, this freedom, must also recognize that certain acts are so contrary to love that they damage or even destroy the ability of individuals to live lives of virtue, and thereby such policies end up destabilizing society (in other words, the requirement for freedom of action does not warrant libertarianism or libertinism; in fact, these policies undermine authentic freedom).  For relationships of communion patterned after the divine archetype, man must master himself so that he fully possess himself and therefore has all of himself to give to God and to others.

So free will is a prerequisite to man’s fulfillment because it is the only way for authentic self-giving, which the Christian tradition calls agape, disinterested love.  Yet in our fallen state, it must be mastered through effort.  But human effort alone is insufficient.  The great English convert of the early 20th century, G. K. Chesterton put it this way, the Catholic life is not difficult, but it is humanly impossible.  We need superhuman effort.  Nature is made for grace and it is through the assistance of grace that our efforts are elevated and perfected.  The ordinary means of grace of course, is through the Sacraments.  So, we need to cooperate with grace in order to live a life of virtue.  Thus we see the human being as an individual who is made for relationships with others.  He is at once a member of the human family according to nature but he is alone as a person until he authentically enters into a relationship and thereby fulfills his potential as a person.  Man is not an island; he is made for society.  A flourishing society needs flourishing, self-possessed individuals.  Therefore, society has the obligation of ordering itself in such a way as to promote virtuous persons.  It must promote authentic freedom.

Today society, the Church, the family and the human person are all in grave danger because of society’s misunderstanding of the human person and misunderstanding of freedom.  Man’s authentic good is no longer understood when the human person is not understood.  Today, the individual’s freedom is at once idolized and feared.  Two opposing political and economic ideologies have arisen to try to deal with this simultaneous idolization and fear of freedom.  They both share the mistaken notion of the person as a radical, atomized individual whose good is found over and against the community’s good rather than one whose good is found within the good of the community.  This is the ill fruit of contemporary political theory’s roots in Hobbsean and Lockean political philosophy.  The first of these erroneous ideologies emphasizes freedom as an absolute; freedom is thought a good in itself, rather than a means for choosing the good (i.e. the means to love).  In this ideology, there is still a fear of other men’s freedom, but it is secondary to the ideology of freedom as an end.  The second view emphasizes the fear of men’s freedom.  Unrestrained freedom is viewed as the most dangerous phenomenon to social harmony.  The approach to addressing this danger is that complete freedom must be restricted to the enlightened few who “know best.”  This oligarchy doles out, often in a paternalistic manner, what it determines to be innocuous freedoms (primarily sexual license).  The dangerous freedoms must be surrendered (parental and family autonomy, freedom of religion, social and economic polity, etc.)

The public policies (political and economic) of these two views, therefore, head in two opposing directions.  The second deprives man of his authentic freedom in order to be allowed to perfect himself, treating him as a troublesome animal who must be pacified through “bread and circuses” (i.e. sexual libertinism) in order to better control his free will in other “more important” areas.  It aims at social harmony through a new orthodoxy that increasingly undermines the pre-political mediating structures between the individual and the state (i.e. marriage, the family and the Church) in order to ensure the orthodoxy of the state is not compromised.  Sexual libertinism also serves the purpose of separating men, especially the young, from family and Church.  This policy results in the increasing need for unity through coerced uniformity and ends in totalitarian collectivism—this ideology is closely associated with contemporary U.S. liberalism or progressivism.  The first view sets freedom up as an idol to be worshiped and to be pursued for its own sake.  In order that each person can protect himself against any infringement upon this idol, it believes that one’s freedom must be guaranteed by depriving everyone of any undue coercive power over anyone else.  Therefore, this view tends in the direction of libertarianism and ends in anarchy—this ideology is closely associated with contemporary U.S. conservatism, or neo-liberalism. 

A concern these ideologies pose, besides their corrosive affects on social harmony, is that they present a hurdle for the new evangelization.  All too many Catholics have identified with one or other ideology, even calling themselves “conservative Catholics” or “liberal Catholics.”  These characterizations indicate the truth that each tend to interpret Catholic teaching through either a liberal or a conservative ideological lens, having a prior commitment to the secular ideology rather than the Gospel proclaimed by the Church.  Rather than helping to purify these secular ideologies of their errors based upon a Catholic understanding of the human person and social order, they twist the Church’s teaching to conform to the ideologies.  When they cannot manage to twist the teaching, they criticize the Church when she contradicts their chosen ideology.

The solution to the destructive affects of these ideologies on person and society and to Catholics’ errors about these ideologies is to promote more effectively among Catholics an authentic, a Catholic, anthropology.  The human person is an individual who finds his fulfillment in authentic relationships with others.  Made after the image of the Trinity, man is not an atomized individual, but an individual who finds his meaning and his fulfillment in a community of persons.  This establishes the foundation for the meaning of social order. 

Flourishing societies require flourishing persons.  The foundation of a flourishing person is found within the authentic family (for more on this see The New Evangelization, Marriage and Family) and the Church; therefore, these two institutions demand a special place in and special protection by society.  The ordering of economic and political society must conform to this truth about the human person.  Therefore, a rightly ordered economy and a rightly ordered state must begin with an adequate anthropology, that is, one that supports the ability of individuals to become virtuous and holy, including by promoting their opportunities to freely contribute to the good of society (faith without works is dead [James 2:17]).  The Church’s social teaching arises from this Catholic anthropology.  We do not have the room to set out the whole of Catholic social teaching here, but let us concentrate on two sets of social co-principles that arise from the central metaphysical structure for understanding our adequate anthropology, the hylomorphic co-principles of form-matter, or body-soul.

The first set of these co-principles is solidarity (a mutual responsibility for one another) and subsidiarity (responsibilities must be exercised at the lowest social level possible).  The second set is the universal destination of goods and private property.  The first set is most often associated with political structures, but really has broader application.  The first co-principle, solidarity, arises from the soul.  The soul is the principle of the rational faculties (intellect and will), and it is these faculties that allow us to know one another so we may love one another; that is, to enter into authentic communion.  Solidarity is the social principle that says we must organize socially in such a way as to facilitate and promote authentic relationships of communion.  The second co-principle, subsidiarity, arises from the body, that which makes us individuals.  It says that social structures must be such that the individual has the opportunity, through freedom, to grow in virtue and holiness, which includes the opportunity to express himself through actions of love for others.  Not only must social structures not deprive him of his ability to contribute to the good of others and the rest of society if he is able, it must actually promote these opportunities.  Interpersonal exchange, that is person-to-person interaction, is essential to this growth in holiness through acts of selfless love because we cannot love (in the sense of agape) an idea or an abstraction, we can only love a person.  For this reason, the higher levels of the structures of social order (e.g. the state) must not supplant lower forms in administering the social order when the lower level has the ability to do it for itself.  This keeps, as much as possible, the opportunity for the interpersonal exchange necessary for flourishing individuals and society.

The second set of co-principles is most often associated with the economic order, but they also can be applied in a wide array of social organization.  The first element, universal destination of goods, arises from the soul and corresponds to the principle of solidarity.  It teaches that God has created the cosmos for everyone and everyone has an equal right to these goods.  The second element, private property, arises from the body (the individual aspect of human nature) and corresponds to the principle of subsidiarity.  It says that in order for the person to co-create with God, to use his ingenuity to provide for himself, for his family and for others in the community, he must have the ability to preserve the fruits of his labor and to multiply the results of his labor.  This is possible only through private property.

However, to understand the full meaning of these two sets of co-principles, we must understand that co-principles are just that, one cannot have one principle without simultaneously having the other.  Just as one does not have a human being without both body and soul, one cannot have authentic solidarity without subsidiarity or authentic private property without having simultaneously the universal destination of good.  In other words, solidarity without subsidiarity denies the truth of the human being and results in collectivism, in which the species is of sole importance, rather than solidarity.  In collectivism, the good of the individual must be subordinated to that of the collective.  This is what we generally see with the various forms of socialism.  On the other hand, subsidiarity without solidarity is selfish individualism, and with respect to the political order, it results in libertarianism and eventually anarchy.  In terms of economics, the favored model for such a distortion is unregulated, Darwinian, laissez-faire capitalism (this does not impugn a capitalist economic structure that is ordered around the good of the person and society).  In terms of the second set of co-principles, an overemphasis on the universal destination of goods such that private property is undermined, devolves into the socially destructive communism.  On the other hand, the promotion of private property at the expense of the universal destination of goods results in the Darwinian capitalism mentioned earlier (the distortion of capitalism that Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned).  Public policy must be arranged such that both co-principles are maintained.

A final aspect of the human person that must be understood and protected is the human person as complementarily, sexually differentiated.  Saint John Paul II pointed out that in the Genesis creation narrative, man is created in the image of God as male and female (see Gen 1:27).  Sex complementarity in man is a reflection of some perfection in God.  Since sex complementarity is relational, it must reflect some aspect of the relationships among the Persons of the Trinity for there is no other archetype from which it can come.  Each human person is made as male and female; there is no other sex, no other gender.  The next passage (Gen 1:28) gives us an indication of how sexually differentiated persons are reflections of God.  It says that the two sexually complementary persons are to be fruitful and multiply and so have dominion over all of creation.  St. Thomas Aquinas indicated that Angels are more like God in terms of their natures as both God and Angels are pure spirit.  However, he said, man is more like God than Angels in terms of relation because as God is begotten of God (the Son is begotten, not created), man is begotten of man.  It is in man’s power to be fruitful and multiply through an act of total self-giving love that he is more like God than even the Angels.  This reveals the truth, the great dignity, and the supreme importance of femininity and masculinity and their fruitful complementarity.  The recent, rapidly spread, widespread confusion of contemporary society over this matter is of supreme concern for the new evangelization.  Man can be alienated from God and from others in many ways, all of which we call sin.  However, when man is alienated from himself, when he no longer understands himself as a man or woman ordered for the other, he loses the capacity for self-integration, self-mastery, self-possession and holiness.  He is deprived of the ability to fulfill himself and flourish as an individual, and he cannot contribute to the flourishing of society. The ability for marriages, families and society to flourish in such a society is undermined by this confusion.  As the confusion grows, it will beget more and more disorder, rendering society more and more hostile to the Gospel and further undermining the chances for a fruitful new evangelization.  Each day, the denial of the truth about human sexuality is becoming a more and more critical issue for the new evangelization and for the stability of society (for more on this, see The New Evangelization, Marriage and Family).