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Made in His Image: Catholic Anthropology and Human Dignity

By F.K. Bartels
June 13th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Incarnation is the definitive answer to man's deepest questions about himself, for "it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear" (GS 22). During his general audience on 8 November 1995, Blessed John Paul II stated that "the nature and destiny of humanity and of the world can be definitively revealed only in the light of the crucified and risen Christ." There are many questions man asks of himself: Why am I here? What is my origin and purpose? What does it mean to be human? What is my end? In Christ we find the answer.

GLADE PARK, CO (Catholic Online) -- Many of the errors of our age can be traced to a failure to seek out and embrace various elements of the truth. One of such, is the truth about who man is. An improper or deficient understanding of the nature of man, his inviolable right to life and his intrinsic human dignity, his spectacular purpose and end-goal, the tragic effects of original sin and the dangerous inclination to continue to sin and so forth, has resulted in a profusion of horrifying effects for which there really are no words.

When we ask the question, "Who is man?" and seek to answer it from a position of reason informed by the light of faith, we enter into the realm of the anthropology of the Catholic Church. It is especially important to have some knowledge in this area, for if we do not understand what it is to be human, we cannot live rightly nor properly interact with others in society. Our full human potential will remain unrealized. Our growth as a human person stunted. These are serious problems indeed, which can potentially effect for all eternity not only ourselves individually but others collectively with whom we come into contact through interpersonal relationships.

There are many questions man asks of himself: Why am I here? What is my origin and purpose?What does it mean to be human? Who and what am I? What is my end? These are certainly very ancient questions that, both with every new generation and repeatedly within each generation, rise to the surface of the human mind. The pressing question that follows is, where are the answers?

Given the daunting array of proposed solutions to questions about man, some insist that there are no answers: the truth about who man is, will forever remain illusive. The Church does not agree with that position. For the Church, "endowed with light from God," offers solutions to man's irrepressible quest to know himself (Gaudium et Spes 12). The Church, instituted by the Son of God and guided by the Spirit, is a holy dwelling place in which men drink from the wellspring of truth.

If man should want to know who he is, is it not most logical that he consult his Maker? That is essentially what the Church claims to do. It is, then, crucial to note that what we learn from the Church about who man is, is based on what God himself, as the Creator of man, has revealed man to be. The Church's anthropology is not in any way solely the product of natural human reason; nor is it merely and only a set of facts distilled from the fruits or failures of man's own self-examination over the centuries. It is not merely list of ideas or a set of propositions. Nor is it derived from human experiment. So, the Church's solutions are much more than simply men talking about man or men analyzing man.  The Church insists upon her anthropology as one which is informed by God's divine revelation.

What the Church has to say about who man is, then, nearly infinitely surpasses in quality whatever man, working in disregard of God's revelation, can say of himself by himself, since her teaching is founded upon God's own immutable truth. This does not disparage in any way the wonderful progress of the natural sciences in understanding more of the inner workings of the human body. The distinction made here is between information derived strictly from empirical study, and the truth about man's existence communicated to the Church through the Holy Spirit. Therefore the Church's anthropology provides a glimpse into the depths and meaning of man's being that is otherwise impossible to attain. While it is true that man is a vastly complex and deeply mysterious being, who, in large part, remains hidden even from himself, what the Church has to say on the matter floods the mystery of man with heavenly light.

For those who are interested in learning more about who man is, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which has many sections dealing with anthropology, is an excellent place to start. There are also numerous encyclicals written by popes who have covered the subject in some form or other. And there is Vatican IIs Gaudium et Spes, one of the four Constitutions produced by the Council having much to offer in relation to the greatest questions facing humankind, and which should be read and understood in light of Lumen Gentium.

As emphasized above, the absence of sound theological anthropology results in untold errors that effect individuals and society in horrifying ways. For instance, let us look for a moment at the dignity of the human person. It is often the case today that people tend to equate human dignity with abilities or the lack of them, such as the ability to make choices or to exercise power over others. Those who lack certain abilities, such as the very young or the very old, are deemed to be less than human. That is, because of what some people cannot do, they are judged by others to be of little or no value. The end result is the reality of abortion: one person exerts deadly power over another who lacks any ability for defense, inflicting bodily death upon the helpless.

As Dr. J. Brian Benestad noted in an essay on Gaudium et Spes, careful education is necessary in order for people to "understand that the dignity of the human person is not essentially constituted by the ability to make choices" (Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition 151). With this statement, he is affirming both that human dignity is not solely defined by abilities, as well as that human dignity is not a possession unaffected by our choices of free will. By man's choices of this or that, good or evil, action or inaction, he shapes his character and thus fathers his own being.

Therefore Dr. Benestad is able to say that "Christians continually achieve or perfect their dignity by seeking the truth, resisting sin, practicing virtue, and repenting when they succumb to temptation" (ibid.). Human dignity is to be advanced by living a moral life within the boundaries of the natural law, in accordance with truth, in free and loving obedience to divine law. Christians are called to perfection through a life of holiness. As Dr. Benestad noted in his essay, Pope Leo XII stated in Rerum novarum that "True dignity and excellence in men resides in moral living, that is, in virtue."

But from where does man obtain his dignity originally? Basing her teaching on Sacred Scripture, the Church proclaims that man's dignity is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26; GS 12; CCC 1700), which is to say at the outset something spectacular. Man does not merely and only reflect something of his Creator, as a sign which points to something beyond itself, but rather bears a real and substantial likeness to God. And that is not all, for man is destined, redeemed as he is by Christ, to share in God's divine life.

Blessed John Paul II wrote in his apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici: "The dignity of the person is manifested in all its radiance when the person's origin and destiny are considered: created by God in his image and likeness as well as redeemed by the most precious blood of Christ, the person is called to be a 'child of the Son' and a living temple of the Spirit, destined for eternal life of blessed communion with God" (37). As Dr. Benestad noted, it is Catholic teaching that man receives his dignity from God in the following three ways: his creation in the image and likeness of God; his redemption by Christ's sacrifice on the cross; his destiny to eternal communion with God.

The human person is indeed special! The future held in store for those who love God is an unending state of supernaturally infused bliss and love in eternal communion with the Holy Trinity. In a word, man is made for God. The human person is clearly not just "something" but rather someone whose exceeding dignity and beauty is founded on his destiny to share in God's divine nature: man is brought forth from the darkness of nonexistence into the light of existence in order to participate in God's life. Man is destined for eternal glory. His dignity is, therefore, of transcendent value which reaches beyond the natural into the supernatural life of God.

Further, the anthropology of the Church points to the Incarnation as the definitive answer to man's deepest questions about himself, for "it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear" (GS 22 1). During his general audience on 8 November 1995, Blessed John Paul II stated that "the nature and destiny of humanity and of the world can be definitively revealed only in the light of the crucified and risen Christ."

Jesus is the "key, the center and the purpose of the whole of man's history" (GS 10). Our origin, purpose and destiny, all that we are and all that we are suppose to be, the entire seemingly unsolvable equation of man is revealed in God's only Son who died for our sake. God who became man is the perfect man. Christ is the supreme example of holiness, perfection and dignity; his life is the paradigm of our own. Jesus, who is "the way and the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6), is the answer to every hope and to every question which dwells in the depths of man's complex, mysterious and often turbulent heart.

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F. K. Bartels is a Catholic writer who knows his Catholic Faith is one of the greatest gifts a man could ever receive. He is a contributing writer for Catholic Online. Visit him also at catholicpathways.com

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