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The Culture of Death and the Person
Steven Meyer, S.T.D. 14 June 2018
For St. John Paul II a culture of death grows from certain roots or foundational errors that lie in opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[i] He engages a false understanding of the nature of the human person as a key root. He once wrote to Henri de Lubac, “I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the PERSON…The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order…”[ii] In what follows I would like to briefly expound on the metaphysical-theological mystery of the unified human person as an “embodied spirit.”[iii]
Human persons are understood more properly in reference to Jesus Christ. The Vatican II Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes serves as an authoritative Catholic teaching on the theological nature of a human person.[iv] Gaudium et spes puts together a complex series of teachings that frame human nature in light of Jesus Christ who is “…the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creatures.” (Col 1:15) As St. John Paul II often quoted, “In reality, it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear.”[v]
The facts of history are that the ancient Christian fathers developed the concept of what a “person” is because of the urgency to speak of Jesus Christ and his relationship to His Father. The idea of a person had previously been in regards to the theater as the mask or prosopon worn by the character on stage. This means it is something extra added to the nature, the hypostasis or substance or what the thing is, of the actor’s body. In the Roman world, the term person denoted either the individual or a corporate identity but the purpose was for the legal implications. Orthodox Archbishop John D. Zizioulas argues that Divine Revelation allowed the Fathers of ancient Christianity to realize that in God the person of the Father is his substance or nature.[vi] It is the person of the Father who acts and relates through his Divine nature. After establishing personhood in God, humans can be understood as persons because “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27)
The Fathers consciously rejected forms of dualism, the explanation of reality from two independently primordial principles, in philosophies familiar to them. For example, a dualist mindset as articulated by various Gnostic sects would depict the existence of two antagonistic deities, one good and one evil, that matter is either evil or unreal, that a human person is really a spirit imprisoned in a body, and that liberation and enlightenment come through gnosis or knowledge. For St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. circa 202) this mindset is anti-Christian. In his defense of the Incarnation, the unity of the Divine and human natures in Christ, he also insisted on the unity of the human body and the soul like Scripture and Tradition or the Old and New Testaments. He wrote, “The complete man is a mixture and a union: the soul, which has received the Spirit of the Father, mixed with the flesh fashioned in the image of God…”[vii] (p. 95) The Council of Braga (561) condemned Pricillian (d. 385) who taught a dualism in which the body is evil and soul is good. Dualistic thinking in regards to the human person still exists in contemporary thought.
At the beginning of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes (d. 1650) famously posited a duality of two principles, mind and matter. It has created the problem of the relationship between the body and the soul. We might analogously think in terms of a car (body) to the driver (soul) or the ghost to the shell, or about the continued existence of the soul after the body has died. For Descartes, the real entity is the conscious “I” who claims awareness. Are we really spiritual substances dwelling in bodies? Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est (2005) gives a negative answer. “The epicure Gassendi used to offer Descartes the humorous greeting: “O’Soul!” And Descartes would reply: “O Flesh!” Yet it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves.”[viii] As John Paul II points out if the consciousness who can say “I” is exaggerated then persons in comas, the unborn, those with severe mental handicaps, and those in vegetative states would no longer qualify as human persons.[ix] As a sexual being, if the body and soul are separate the body can be treated as an appendage to the soul and can be exploited, depersonalized, manipulated and treated as a “thing”.[x]
Personhood is not something in addition to having being or a nature; a person possesses a nature and the attributes proper to that nature. Boethius classically defined a person as ‘an individual substance of a rational nature.’ The person is the substance despite the accidence (sense appearances). In the case of human nature, the person is the substance despite their being a baby or old, sick or healthy. To be an individual means to be undividable. A person cannot be reduced to a further subcategory. In other words, a person cannot be split. Having a rational nature means that persons exist as intellectual beings. St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of a person as an individual and complete substance. Persons have subsistence, viz., they possess their nature. They are individual in their mode of being.[xi] Having a rational nature has the characteristics of will and freedom guided by intelligence. A human person has a human nature which consists of a unity of spiritual (soul) and physical (body) elements. In human nature the soul alone, when separated from the body, is not a complete person. The soul of the person constitutes the form of the body and communicates its spiritual qualities through the body and together form the indivisible substance of an individual human person. Created human persons are not complete. They have the potential to move toward their perfection. Human nature is a nature common to all humans while each individual human is a person. Every person is unique and irreplaceable.
I believe this metaphysical understanding of personhood is foundational. It needs to be re-admitted to a contemporary dialogue. Our fathers combated a dualism regarding the human person as to matter being less real or evil reducing Christ’s human nature and our own. In our day the dualism introduced by rationalism has caused errors in Christology along the line of misunderstanding the consciousness of Christ and his purpose. These errors have led to the degradation of our own human dignity as persons.[xii]
[i] See Evangelium vitae articles 19-24. The full text of EV can be found online at the Vatican website: https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html
[ii] In Avery Cardinal Dulles, The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co, 2003), p., 248.
[iii] John Paul II, “Letter to Families” 19; Full text available here: https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/1994/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_02021994_families.html. See Richard A. Spinello, The Genius of John Paul II: The Great Pope’s Moral Wisdom (New York: Sheed and Ward, 2007), pp. 67-74.
[iv] It serves as the reference point for the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the post-Vatican II pontificates. For full text see, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html
[v] Gaudium et spes, article 22; See also Redemptor hominis 8; Dives in misericordia 1; Veritatis splendor 2.
[vi] John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), p. 27-65.
[vii] The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), p. 95.
[viii] Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, article 5. For the full text see: https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20051225_deus-caritas-est.html
[ix] In Evangelium vitae John Paul writes, “We can find them in an overall assessment of a cultural and moral nature, beginning with the mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others. But how can we reconcile this approach with the exaltation of man as a being who is "not to be used"? The theory of human rights is based precisely on the affirmation that the human person, unlike animals and things, cannot be subjected to domination by others. We must also mention the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection.” (EV 19) See also EV 60.
[x] Cf., Evangelium vitae 32.
[xi] For a succinct summary of person in St. Thomas see L.W. Geddes, and W. A. Wallace, “Person in Philosophy” as found in the New Catholic Encyclopedia; "Person (In Philosophy)." New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 11, Gale, 2003, pp. 146-148. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=txshracd2596&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CCX3407708652&it=r&asid=2da06dc76d047baa5b8f6817c3867fef. Accessed 26 Sept. 2017; See also Giles Emery, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God (Catholic University of America Press, 2011), pp. 100-9, particularly p. 102 here.
[xii] See John Paul II, “Letter to Families,” article 19: “The philosopher who formulated the principle of "Cogito, ergo sum", "I think, therefore I am", also gave the modern concept of man its distinctive dualistic character. It is typical of rationalism to make a radical contrast in man between spirit and body, between body and spirit. But man is a person in the unity of his body and his spirit. The body can never be reduced to mere matter: it is a spiritualized body, just as man's spirit is so closely united to the body that he can be described as an embodied spirit. The richest source knowledge of the body is the Word made flesh. Christ reveals man to himself. In a certain sense this statement of the Second Vatican Council is the reply, so long awaited, which the Church has given to modern rationalism.”
Steven Meyer, S.T.D., Dr. Meyer currently serves as an assistant professor in theology for the University of St. Thomas School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and is on the Editorial Board of the Society of St. Sebastian's Journal of Bioethics in Law in Culture.