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Catholic Social Teaching: The Human Person is Made in the Image of God

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It is essential to understand the concept of personhood as an ontological concept, and not as a functional concept

Only persons are made in the image of God, have a capacity for God, and have supernatural destinies.  Remove God from the picture, therefore, and invariably the concept of person becomes unintelligible.  The dignity of man, the concept of personhood, cannot be built upon agnostic, much less atheistic, foundations.  True, it is a philosophical concept, but it is intimately theological at its foundation.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - One of the foundational concepts of the Church's social doctrine is personhood.  The notion of personhood is a philosophical concept, but it finds its inspiration and deepening in the revealed doctrines that man is made in the image of God (imago Dei), and that man is called to a supernatural destiny, or, as The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church puts it, "is constitutively related to God in the most profound manner." (Compendium, No. 108)

The Medieval scholastics had wonderful aphorisms that encapsulated this latter notion, that man is "constitutively related to God in the most profound manner," that both heaven and God hound him.  Homo est Dei capax.  Man has a capacity for God.  This capacity for God is what gives man a supernatural dignity.  Homo non proprie humanum, sed superhumanum est.  Man is not properly human, but superhuman.  The Compendium quotes Ecclesiastes 3:11 in saying that God "has put eternity into man's mind," and also refers to St. Augustine's beautiful saying in his Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

Only persons are made in the image of God, have a capacity for God, and have supernatural destinies.  Remove God from the picture, therefore, and invariably the concept of person becomes unintelligible.  The dignity of man, the concept of personhood, cannot be built upon agnostic, much less atheistic, foundations.  True, it is a philosophical concept, but it is intimately theological at its foundation.

"All of social life," the Compendium states eliciting an image of the drama of human life, "is an expression of its unmistakable protagonist: the human person."  The origin of social life, as well as its subject, foundation, and goal, is the human person. (Compendium, No. 106)  The centrality of personhood in Catholic social doctrine cannot be underestimated.  "The whole of the Church's social doctrine, in fact, develops from the principle that affirms the inviolable dignity of the human person." (Compendium, No. 107)

Being ordered to the good of the human person, the whole of social life can therefore be critiqued by reference to whether it promotes or instead redimensions or distorts the human person and the human dignity that follows in its train.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church therefore focuses on this concept of personhood.

It is essential to understand the concept of personhood as an ontological concept, and not a functional concept.  The word ontological comes from the Greek words ontos ("that which is, "or "being") and logos ("study," "theory," "word," or "reason").  The notion of person, is therefore a word about man's being.  Man is a person because of who he is, because of his being what he is, not because of what he is capable of doing or becoming, because of what functions, mental, psychological, biological, etc. he is capable of performing.

Insidiously, when many moderns use the word "person," they have a functional concept in mind, a notion that most have traced to John Locke's definition of self in his Essay on Human Understanding as "a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places."

Such a functional conception of personhood is convenient when you want to dispose of men, women, or children under color of morality.  This is the trick the Compendium calls redimensioning.  The trick is simple: those who do not have all the functions you happen to think are important are written out of personhood.  They are then outside the pale of protection, and they are fair game to the more powerful.  All of a sudden, by a sort of nominal legerdemain or prestidigitation applied to the term person--Presto!--might becomes right. 

Hence, fetuses, those in a persistent vegetative state, and the mentally infirm are not persons under a functional dimension, though under an ontological dimension they clearly are.  This is the sort of redimensioning of the concept of person against which the Compendium warns.

The concept of personhood, of course, transcends the distinction of sex, and so man and woman, being both persons, "have the same dignity and are of equal value." (Compendium, No. 111)  They are complementary expressions of the human person, and this complementarity finds its apex or epitome in the reciprocal giving that is part of the I-Thou and Thou-I covenant of marriage, a relationship that "gives life to the 'we' in the human couple," which itself is an image of God and image of God's love for the Church.

There is a certain tragedy in this creature that is imago Dei and capax Dei, and that is the notion of original sin, and man's fallen nature.  Philosophy knows nothing of the doctrine, though, as G. K. Chesterton quipped in his book Orthodoxy, it is a fact "as practical as potatoes" that there is "indisputable dirt" on the countenance of man, and it "is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved" by irrefutable evidence and by witness of experience.

The Church will not allow man to divert himself, indeed to deceive himself by hiding himself, from facing the fact that he suffers from original sin.  She will prevent him from trying to use foils to avoid having to confront his deep guilt, and his deep need for God the Redeemer.

"This doctrine," of original sin the Compendium tells us, "encourages men and women not to remain in guilt and not to take guilt lightly, continuously seeking scapegoats in other people and justification in the environment, in heredity, in institutions, in structures and in relationships.  This is a teaching that unmasks such deceptions."  (Compendium, No. 120)

Man is walking wounded.  "The mystery of sin is composed of a twofold wound, which the sinner opens in his own side and in the relationship with his neighbor.  That is why we can speak of personal and social sin."  As the Compendium correctly notes, there simply is no such thing as a "victimless sin."  All sins have both personal and social dimensions.

"Every sin is personal under a certain aspect; under another, every sin is social, insofar as and because it also has social consequences.  In its true sense, sin is always an act of the person, because it is the free act of an individual person and not properly speaking of a group or community.  The character of social sin can unquestionably be ascribed to every sin, taking into account the fact that "by virtue of the human solidarity which is as mysterious and intangible as it is real and concrete, each individual's sin in some way affects others."" (Compendium, No. 117) (quoting JP II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, No. 16)

One of the horrible consequences of personal sins and their invariable social nature is that they become institutionalized, consolidated in what are called "structures of sin."  (Compendium, No. 119)  These "structures of sin" give rise to a vicious social inertia which is difficult to overcome, since they result in certain self-interest in sin, they condition those who grow up or participate in such structures, and they tend to normalize behavior which is sinful. 

One might recall Pascal's Pensées (No. 458): "'All that is in the world is the lust of the flesh, or the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life; libido sentiendi, libido sciendi, libido dominandi.' [1 John 2:16] Wretched is the cursed land which these three rivers of fire enflame rather than water!"  There are many lands, including our own, that are fed with the fires of libido, and these are the "structures of sin" against which we must also battle.

The Church's understanding of original sin and of man's fallen state is therefore realistic.  The Church is fully cognizant of the tragic flaw that is resident in the intimate parts of man and which tends to bar him from his destiny.  However, she is not, by any means pessimistic.  She does not cry with a leaden echo the words: "despair, despair, despair, despair."  At her heart is an optimistic and positive conception of man because she has in her ken the mighty solution to man's problems.

The Church yells with a golden echo, "Spare!" and points us "Yonder, yes yonder, yonder, yonder."

"Christian realism sees the abysses of sin, but in the light of the hope, greater than any evil, given by Jesus Christ's act of redemption, in which sin and death are destroyed . . . . The new reality that Jesus Christ gives us is not grafted onto human nature nor is it added from outside: it is rather that reality of communion with the Trinitarian God to which men and women have always been oriented in the depths of their being thanks to their creaturely likeness to God. . . . The universality of this hope also includes, besides the men and women of all peoples, heaven and earth . . . . According to the New Testament, all creation, together indeed with all humanity, awaits the Redeemer: subjected to futility, creation reaches out full of hope, with groans and birth pangs, longing to be freed from decay."  (Compendium, No. 120-23)


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law, called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


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