The Church has been entrusted with the fullness of the truth, God’s final self-revelation in Jesus Christ, who is the “image of the invisible Father” and in whose image each human person is created. Because we know Jesus Christ, we can see and understand the truth about man. For this reason, the Catholic Church has the only adequate anthropology, meaning that she possesses a true and complete understanding of the human person.
To an increasingly secular culture this sounds like anti-cultural blasphemy. Why? To answer that question, let’s look at the radically different ideas about reality from which our culture and our Church begin the project of understanding what it is to be human.
A Fundamental Difference
To understand the growing gap between Catholic and secular anthropology we have to recognize that each grows organically from one of two mutually exclusive concepts of the ultimate reality—that reality which explains the existence of everything else.
For Catholics the ultimate reality is the eternal Blessed Trinity, who created the universe and all it contains from nothing, by a free act of infinite power and love. For modern secularists, the ultimate reality is matter, the revealingly named “God Particle” from which all other particles and composites are made.
These two paradigms are utterly incompatible.
The classical Judeo-Christian worldview flows from the fact that we understand creation has a Creator and that the Creator has a purpose and intention for his creation, most especially human beings, whom he made in his image and likeness to share in his own blessed life.
The modern secularist worldview flows from the false idea that only matter exists, tumbling through the void of time and space, combining and recombining according to the immovable laws of physics in an unending, purposeless reshuffling of atoms.
On that view, everything spiritual (God, souls, mind, will, etc.) is simply an illusion created by the exhaust of biomechanical processes. This philosophy is called Materialism. It is not true, but it is dangerous and has deeply influenced our culture.
Let’s examine more closely how all this colors our view of man.
The Four Human Questions
Four basic questions frame our understanding of ourselves as human beings. These are: Who am I (identity)? Where do I come from (origin)? What am I for (purpose)? Where am I going (destiny)?
How we answer these questions will form the way we think, choose, and act; so the answers to these questions matter a great deal. The Catholic Church makes the controversial double claim that a) there are correct answers to these four human questions, and b) they are most clearly understood and elucidated in the theological tradition of the Catholic Church.
To illustrate what is meant by that double claim, let us contrast the conclusions of our Catholic anthropology with those of an inadequate, materialist anthropology, when applied to a contemporary moral issue. I will employ one such example for each of the four human questions.
The Question of Identity: Who am I?
The Church teaches that every human being is a beloved child of God, created in his image and likeness, and infinitely precious to the Father. The Catholic Church holds that each human person is unique and unrepeatable, with inviolable dignity, and inestimable worth, and God has a plan and a purpose for each of us. We have been given rational intelligence and free will; so we are able to know, will, and love in the image of the God who made us.
The materialist believes man is no more than the unintended outcome of a blind, purposeless process of matter tumbling through the void of time and space, combining and recombining as pre-determined by the laws of physics. We are no more than a buzzing cloud of atoms, temporarily pushed together as a so-called “human being.” Therefore, nothing can be said of us, or our value, beyond what can be said of any other clump of atoms. We are no more valuable than a rabbit or a rock.
What does that matter? Let’s consider the question of abortion.
When we, as Catholics, object to abortion, we are appealing to the truth that human persons are intentionally brought into being, even those not intended by their parents. Every person is wanted and loved by God. God’s will and love stand infinitely before and beyond the feelings and intentions of the human parents. And because no human person can come into existence apart from God’s will, every person has value, dignity, and purpose. So the Church defends his or her right to life, regardless of the circumstances or emotions surrounding conception.
For the materialist, on the other hand, the unborn baby is just another clump of cells pushed together by the biological coupling of the parents. There is no God, so there is no divine will behind the “coming-into-being” of this unborn baby. It is simply a case of purposeless biomechanical processes playing out.
From a secular, materialist worldview, it is justifiable that parents, who don’t want this so-called “product of conception” to happen, should be allowed to end the pregnancy. In the absence of a Creator, the dignity and worth—and so the fate—of the unborn rests on how the parents feel about them. Theirs are the only wills and intentions involved.
This is how we arrive at the secular orthodoxy on womens’ right to abortion. For them, an abortion is simply the process of an unwilling host ridding herself of an unwanted clump of cells, for which she has no desire and therefore no responsibility.
The Question of Origin: Where do I come from?
The Catholic Church teaches that we each come from a free and original act of God’s creative will. From all eternity the Almighty loved us into existence; at the moment of our conception, he breathed life into the biological union of our parents (regardless of our parents’ intentions). We were created as a new spiritual soul in union with a physical body, both of which will exist forever.
In the materialist worldview, you and I literally had our origin in the Big Bang. Given the multitude of physical constants that determine how matter must behave in the universe, and the temperature, velocity, and mass present at the Big Bang, it was inevitable that, at the time of our conception, an utterly insignificant amount of matter would fall together for an utterly insignificant amount of time and bring “us” into the world. This is supposedly how we came to be. The universe didn’t notice; the universe didn’t care.
What does that matter? Let’s examine the question of same-sex marriage and gender identity.
We Catholics uphold and defend the traditional view of marriage as being the sacramental union of one man with one woman for the mutual benefit of the spouses and for the procreation of children. In doing so, we appeal to the truth that we each originate in God’s loving will and are created in the image of the Blessed Trinity, male and female, so that we might not only exist in God’s image and likeness, but love in it as well.
From all eternity, God is a loving, life-giving communion of three Divine Persons. When a husband and wife—joined in sacramental marriage—give themselves to one another in the marital embrace, they imitate in the flesh the very internal life of God. If God wills it, the love of husband and wife can be so powerful that it becomes a third person. In this way, they become, when they love as God intends, a living icon of the Blessed Trinity.
The secular materialist says this is nonsense and an injustice against those who feel marginalized and judged by our “religious stereotypes.” To the materialist, people are merely the temporary, unintended outcomes of blind, physical processes.
In a real sense, this means that we are all self-originating. The universe will squish a bunch of atoms together into a body for each of us, but from there we decide how to use that body and to what purpose. It becomes simply the machinery for the “Project of Me.”
From this point of view, sex can only be just another physical activity, to be used for pleasure or as a means to some other end. It is not for anything, nor does it have any objective meaning.
Furthermore, your body is just how matter fell together in your case; it should not limit or define you in any way. So, if it feels good to you to couple with a body like yours, go for it. Your sex will naturally be sterile, but that is only relevant if you and your partner decide it is anyway.
Finally, if you don’t identify with the Judeo-Christian narrative attached to the kind of body the universe dumped you in, you can make any alterations to that body you feel necessary, or at least claim there’s been a mistake.
The Question of Purpose: What am I for?
This is really the central question of every human life.
For a Catholic, this question is always addressed first to God; it is seeking his will for the life he gave us. God entrusts to each of us a vocation, a role in his great drama. To find and embrace it is to become who we are called to be, and to live the life for which God has chosen and graced us. This is how we are called to make a gift of ourselves to others.
For the materialist—given who you are and where you are from—this question is ultimately futile and without meaning. You are an accident of physics and evolution, and accidents don’t mean anything, they just happen. The buzzing cloud of atoms that is you was not intended, created, or willed. You may attempt to create meaning for yourself, but given the inescapable outcome of your existence (death), it is ultimately an investment in nothing. So eat, drink and be merry….
Why does this matter? Let’s consider the relatively new cultural phenomenon of addiction to virtual reality.
Whatever the particulars of our vocation, as Catholics we know that the work entrusted to each of us will involve real work, real action, and real sacrifice in the real world. St. Paul uses faithfully running a race as an analogy for the journey of faith (cf. 1 Cor 9:24-27). We hear this same truth echoed in Pope Benedict XVI’s words of April 25, 2005: “…we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.”[i]
As members of his Mystical Body, Christ calls us out of ourselves to mission into the infinitely bigger adventure of God’s will. Each of us was made to be part of a story greater than we will ever see this side of heaven; and if we ignore or reject the work entrusted to us, it may not necessarily subvert God’s great plan and purpose for the world, but it may reduce to ruin his plan and purpose for us.
On the other hand, when faced with the question of what I am for, and what the purpose of my life is, the materialist just shrugs. “That is entirely up to you,” he says, as though that could possibly be true for a creature who has so little power over even the most basic circumstances of his own life.
“Remember,” the materialist declares, “you are an accident of physics, and accidents are not for anything. They just happen. Your life means whatever you decide it means, nothing more.”
This “your-life-is-what-you-make-of-it” approach is a doomed search for meaning. Each person is hopelessly adrift, untethered from any larger story or purpose, and left to try to manufacture from nothing a reason for being. The lie that I can give ultimate meaning to my own life is, in reality, the first step on the road to despair.
And therein lies, I think, the great appeal of virtual reality and the danger of becoming addicted to it. For a culture full of people who are disconnected from who they are, where they’re from and what they are for, the opportunity that video games, the internet, and social media offers to tailor-make a virtual world is very hard to resist. This visually and emotionally stimulating virtual reality can temporarily fill the void of an empty life with the illusion of meaning and power.
In a sense, through these various virtual media—none of which are intrinsically evil—any ordinary person can become a god.
The real world, and most of the people in it, are largely unresponsive to my will and wishes, but not so in the virtual world. In the virtual world, I create, control, and define my reality. I can be a hero-conqueror in video games, cause those I dislike or disagree with to disappear on social media, and surround myself with only like-minded, mutually admiring people on the internet. Virtual reality answers ultimately to me.
It is not surprising, then, to see so many people increasingly spend the best of their time and energy in the virtual world they create and control, instead of the real world created and controlled by the God they reject or ignore.
The Question of Destiny: Where am I going?
As Catholics we know that we are made for heaven. We are created to share for all eternity in the superabundant life of the Blessed Trinity. There, in the Beatific Vision, we will find the fulfillment of all desires, the eternal home that we only glimpse and long for here.
We also know that God will honor our free will by giving us what we choose and love—Himself or ourselves—for all eternity. Yet to seek and love God first is to find not only God but our truest selves in the bargain. To serve ourselves is to lose both God and ourselves. Where we spend eternity depends entirely on how willing we are to give the assent of faith to God’s will in our lives and allow his grace to conform us to him.
For the materialist, our destiny is extinction. We are each headed for death, physical disintegration, and eternal non-existence. Just as the blind forces of physics and evolution shoved our atoms together, soon enough those same blind forces will tear us apart. Since all we are is a temporary, buzzing cloud of atoms, that physical disintegration is, really, the end of us and of all our projects. Death is annihilation; nothing and no one survive it. It ends all projects, and brings to the same conclusion the best and worst of lives.
What does that matter? Let’s consider the question of assisted suicide.
Catholics know that each human life belongs to God. This means that the end of our lives is no more in our hands than the beginning was; we entrust to God the life that he entrusted to us, and in so doing, acknowledge that God alone is the Lord of life, that he is our Alpha and our Omega, our beginning and our end, our source and our destination.
When life goes badly, when we are sick, suffering, lonely, or helpless, the fact of God’s sovereignty over our lives remains. He is with us in our suffering, giving us the grace to bear our trials patiently. In the end, if we will unite our suffering with that of Christ, he will make it bear fruit in the work of our redemption.
The Catholic Church forbids suicide, direct or assisted, because suicide rejects God’s fundamental gift, as well as the suffering that God has allowed as part of his plan for us. To choose suicide because the conditions of our life are no longer acceptable to us, is also to play God; and it is a violation of the hope that we, as followers of Christ, are to cling to in all circumstances.
For the materialist, we have every right to “check out early.” Our lives are our own; and since we were thrust into existence without our consent, we are free to determine that our existence no longer meets the standard we require and can proactively embrace our destined non-existence, instead of passively (and perhaps painfully) waiting for it to arrive.
For the materialist, any effort to deny people the right to pull the plug on their own existence amounts to a bigoted imposition of beliefs they don’t share. Everyone should have the right to get off the ride whenever they decide it isn’t fun anymore.
Those of us blessed enough to have inherited the faith of the Apostles, in the one true Church established by Jesus Christ, must never lose sight of, nor fail to be grateful for, nor miss an opportunity to bear charitable witness to, the profoundly beautiful Catholic anthropology which we have from Mother Church.
In every age, the Church has what the world needs. If we are to defend life from conception to natural death, and uphold God’s plan for marriage and sexuality, or address any of the social ills of our society, we must be able to catechize from the fullness of truth about the human person. This means we must begin the joyful task of learning what our Catholic faith teaches about who we are, where we come from, what we are for, and where we are going.
So, let us put ourselves often in the presence of Christ—who is the world’s only adequate anthropology—in adoration or prayerful contemplation of the crucifix, with our Bible in one hand and the Catechism in the other. There are people literally dying to hear the Church’s great Good News.
Steve Greene is Director of the Kino Catechetical Institute at the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona. He is also an adjunct instructor in Philosophy and Ethics at Mesa Community College and adjunct instructor in Catholic Studies at University of Mary in Tempe. In addition to homeschooling their five children, Steve and his wife Becky co-host a weekly radio show, “The Catholic Conversation,” on Immaculate Heart Radio in Phoenix. Their podcasts can be found on iTunes.
Art credit: Photo of "Most Holy & Undivided Trinity" by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP Flickr.com.
This article originally appeared on pages 14-17 of the printed edition.