The Catholic Thing
What is man? Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 26 August 2012

The divinely inspired psalmist says: “When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place – what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4) The Church takes up this paean to humanity, although poorly because so many clergy and laity do not use the anthropology found in divine revelation as their operational definition of what it means to be human.

There is first the immense and unique dignity of the human being: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them.” (Genesis 1:27) Man exists and images God. This is the great wonder of being human, a person unlike anything else in creation no matter how cute the gorilla or the dolphin appears.

It means being in personal relationships with other subjects. Neither pets nor television fit the bill. We need to start paying attention to the dimensions of human communication that are lost in electronic communication like texting and cell phoning. How do we preserve personal communication? Perhaps parishes have to become the places to learn real personal communication again?

Then too human existence means permanent dependence and relationship to God, no matter the busyness of the day or the high of the drug. So that Aquinas could say: “We draw near to God . . . by the affections of our soul, and by the actions of that same soul do we withdraw from Him.”

Furthermore, we are strange unities of body and soul, of matter and spirit. Thomas again: “For as body and soul belong to the nature of man, so to the concept of this particular man belong this particular soul and this particular body; and by these is this particular man distinguished from all other men.” So each human is unique, unrepeatable – the main case against aborting him or her. The uniqueness militates against glib thinking in terms of classes – voters, blacks, whites, rich, poor etc.

Yet the body and soul unity is so intimate that our body is the expression of our soul. (Sorry Descartes you were better at math!) So humans crown the material world, giving it voice: “Through his bodily composition he gathers to himself the elements of the material world; thus they reach their crown through him, and through him raise their voice in free praise of the Creator.” (Vatican II)

The spiritual leads the material world yet is engaged to it as part of the real. The spiritual sets the value on human beings because in fact: “Man judges rightly that by his intellect he surpasses the material universe, for he shares in the light of the divine mind.”(Vatican II) Sharing in this light obviates disengaged ideas like Marxism and its “New Man or purely this worldly “hope.” 

            Adam and Eve by Marc Chagall (1912)

Genesis goes on: “male and female he created them. God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”(Genesis 1:27, 28) Human beings only exist as male and female. Their genes bear this out. The male-female union is both material and spiritual at the same time which gives a unique meaning to sexuality: “sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such.”(John Paul II) And this giving is “for life” owing to the nature of spirit. Unity founds the couple’s daily life and their domestic church.

In addition, the community and intersubjectivity of persons “does not reach its perfection on the level of technical progress, but on the deeper level of interpersonal relationships. These demand a mutual respect for the full spiritual dignity of the person. Christian revelation contributes greatly to the promotion of this communion between persons, and at the same time leads us to a deeper understanding of the laws of social life which the Creator has written into man's moral and spiritual nature.”(Vatican II)

But God has done so much more: the height and the depth of Catholic anthropology is captured, for example, in John Paul II’s words: “How precious must man be in the eyes of the Creator, if he ‘gained so great a Redeemer,’ and if God ‘gave his only Son‘ in order that man ‘should not perish but have eternal life’.” In fact, the unity of the Divine Son with human nature is uniquely where we discover the meaning that humanity has for God and for us too. It is where we overcome sin and are sanctified.

And finally, there is the Church: “God. . .does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness,” united in Christ for the whole of humanity. (Vatican II)

What is man? Only God can tell us.

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, August 26, 2012
Pascal puts it very well, when he says, “The greatness and the wretchedness of man are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us both that there is in man some great source of greatness and a great source of wretchedness. It must then give us a reason for these astonishing contradictions.” He concludes, “Not only do we know God by Jesus Christ alone, but we know ourselves only by Jesus Christ. We know life and death only through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ, we do not know what is our life, nor our death, nor God, nor ourselves... Thus, without Scripture, which has only Jesus Christ for its object, we know nothing and see only obscurity and confusion in God’s nature and ours.”
written by Grump, August 26, 2012
Pets do fill a void that humans don't. "If there are no dogs in heaven then I want to go where the dogs go." - Will Rogers.

Lord Byron's epitaph for a dog:

Near this spot are deposited the remains of one who
possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the Virtues of Man,
without his Vices.
This Praise, which would be unmeaning
Flattery if inscribed over human
ashes is but a just tribute to the Memory
of Boatswain, a Dog.
written by Fr. Bramwell, August 26, 2012
A nice piece of poetry but since it is not based on revelation it is more sentimental than factual which if you think about it is the point of the column this week.
written by kristinajohannes, August 27, 2012
Father, I really like this comment you made: "Perhaps parishes have to become the places to learn real personal communication again?"
What a lovely light that sheds on the parish.
written by Fr. Bramwell, August 27, 2012
Thanks Kristina. I think that in the future parishes will be working on community much more.

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