my last column
, I searched for an answer to the question of personhood—a massive task that, since it certainly wasn’t completed in five hundred words, I felt compelled to continue my investigation on. I realized that, when seeking to define something clearly, it’s often helpful to frame answers in the negative—to know what a thing
can help us to better know what it is. This month, then, I will attempt to illustrate what we, as human persons, are
, so as to more fully understand what we are.
As Catholics today, with ever-growing access to good homilies, radio talk shows and Internet blogs, we often hear the wisest among us discussing such topics as rationalism, modernism, and secularism. At first glance, these seem to be intimidating concepts—terms that only a philosophy major would understand. But they all, when boiled down to their common essence, assert the same falsehood: that human reason is the sole authority for deciding what is and is not true.
These philosophies, when left to run wild, cut God entirely out of human existence. In today’s culture, false definitions of the person have long since become the rule rather than the exception. And how many there are!
Some are scientific, defining the person strictly in terms of what can be measured and calculated. Others draw their distortions from sociological data, assigning dignity to a person insofar as he has “meaningful relationships” with friends, family members, and coworkers. Still other interpretations are based in convoluted legalese, assigning personhood only to those who are able to fully exercise their basic human rights.
As Catholics, hopefully none of us are prone to allow such foolishness to define us; still, even being
of so many contrasting and colliding definitions is enough to make your head spin!
The world, no doubt, would have you believe that further defining personhood really is as complicated as I’ve presented it here – thankfully, in reality, it’s really quite simple.
Here is where the negation, the
, comes in. Personhood is not any of the arbitrary definitions outlined above. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, teaches that every person has a dignity which is “intrinsic first and always,” absolutely and completely. This dignity doesn’t exist in terms that can be quantified or understood subjectively. “Man,” as the Catechism assures us, “is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake.”
Simply put, God desires us, loves us, for ourselves – not for what we can do, what ends we might fulfill, or what circumstances we find ourselves in.
As people living in the modern world, this is a strange pill for us to swallow; we are conditioned by social and cultural attitudes to determine our worth and the worth of others using the faulty measuring sticks of talent, success, friendships and any number of other subjective criteria. These things, we must remind ourselves constantly, are not what God looks at to determine our worth; indeed, His love for us transcends our ability to measure at all.
Charley is a student at the University of Mary in Bismarck and a freelance writer for the DCA. This column is part of a series discussing Bishop Kagan’s latest pastoral letter, “…and so man became a living being.” Hard copies can be requested by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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