What is man?

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, OMI

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI, PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True; The World of the Sacraments; Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini, and, most recently, John Paul II's Ex Corde Ecclesiae: The Gift of Catholic Universities to the World.