Fuente: The Moral Immagination
26 de marzo 2024

We are inundated with philosophies of the person that create anxiety, loneliness, and social disorder. We need to recover a vision of the person that affirms the goodness of being and the body.

This is a talk I gave in March 2024 at the Catholic Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome for the conference Truth, Justice, and Freedom in a Pluri-Anthropological World co-sponsored by the Acton Institute and the Faculty of Philosophy of the Gregorian University.
I have had a number of requests for the text so I am making it available with some revisions for clarity. Because this was a thematic talk and a not a formal essay, I do not provide extensive footnotes and citations, but I have provided some links for your reference.

We are in an anthropological struggle. At the core of our deepest social, political, moral, and scientific debates, is what it means to be a human being.

We are inundated with philosophies of the person that are variations of utopianism – never ending life extension, going off planet, uploading ourselves to the internet, becoming cyborgs, or nihilism – cogs for the state or scourge on the earth. They are recurring examples of what Russell Kirk and Irving Babbitt have called the “Idyllic imagination” and the “diabolical imagination.”

Ultimately, they are philosophies and anti-theologies of despair. These visions of the human person dominate much of our discourse and are creating anxiety, loneliness, cultural and social disorder, contribute to the decline of Christian belief, and ultimately to a culture of death. Gaudium et Spes describes our condition well:

[W]e are buffeted between hope and anxiety and pressing one another with questions … we are burdened down with uneasiness.

At the core of this uneasiness is the question: “Who are we?” What does it mean to be a person?

This struggle over the meaning of the person is not new. It was behind the scenes of the 20th century political and military conflicts. As John Paul II explained “the fundamental error of socialism was anthropological in nature” not simply economic or political.

The thesis of my argument is that that we must not only show how these philosophies of the person are incoherent and anti-human, but that the ultimate, and really only effective response to these anthropologies of despair is not a new therapy, but the Gospel message which includes the good news about who and what we are. As Gaudium et Spes makes clear, it is “Christ… who reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

I’ll divide my lecture into 2 parts.

First, I will set out five false anthropologies that are dominant today. Each of these is complex, and I cannot do them justice in a short talk. And as you will see they overlap, and feed off each other.

Second, I’ll conclude by briefly highlighting some of the key characteristics of Catholic anthropology as a response and alternative to these anthropologies of despair.

PART 1: Five Anthropologies of Despair

1.      Plastic Anthropology

The first false anthropology that is increasingly influential is “plastic anthropology,” or what could be called a new ontology of the person. This is most evident in the sexual sphere, but it also bleeds into other areas like transhumanism, which I will discuss. Plastic anthropology sees the person as radically malleable.

Perhaps one way to understand plastic anthropology is this: in an Aristotelian, Thomistic, or Catholic vision of the person — human beings have an essence — we are a certain kind of thing: hylomorphic, embodied, embedded persons with a specific nature. While each of us is a unique individual with freedom for self-creation, it is always within the bounds of an essence.

With plastic anthropology — there is an essence, but it is changeable and malleable. It can be chosen and shaped by the will – or by feelings – and especially sexual predilection. You choose whether you are LGBTQ, and when you do, the malleable plastic hardens — and that becomes who you are. So, for example, where a Catholic would say that a man struggles with homosexual attraction, the new ontology says that man IS a homosexual. With transgenderism — if the man identifies as a woman, he IS a woman.  Thus, society is required to treat him as such. This is why, for example you must refer to a man as “she” and “her” for to do otherwise is a violation of the person’s “dignity.” I will address the issue of dignity in a moment. Similarly, the biological man who identifies as a woman must be able to use the woman’s bathroom and participate in women’s sports. While sexual identity is the main issue, it goes well beyond that.

These are complex issues with many influences including contagion, propaganda, and indoctrination of children. And it is important to remember that many people are suffering — they are victims of the sexual revolution, and many have experience sexual abuse. But they are also victims of false anthropologies, and what Abigail Shrier has called “bad therapy,” and the failure of adults who instead of helping vulnerable, young people navigate difficult times by telling them the truth, use young people for gratification, scientific experiments, false compassion, or as political tools.

Act of Injustice

The reduction of a person’s identity to their sexual predilection is also an act of injustice. It often acquits an abuser who can be the source of these struggles and defines people by their disorder and suffering. We would never say, for example, that a promiscuous man is ontologically promiscuous. Nor would we tell a young girl struggling with anorexia that she should embrace her anorexic identity and starve herself until she dies. One’s identity is not determined by one’s sexual feelings and disorders, just as one’s identity is not determined by his or her eating disorders.

And it is essential to remember that if a person can create his or her own identity; if the person is so plastic and malleable that they can redefine themselves –then it will also be the case that people in power can do it to you. As C.S. Lewis warned in The Abolition of Man:

Man’s power over nature is always some men’s power over other men.

And of course that is precisely what is happening to children. Therapists, physicians, teachers-people with power are exercising their power over vulnerable children. The 20th and 21st centuries are filled with examples of those in power deciding who is a person worthy of life and who is not.

Dignity as a Weapon against Religious Liberty

Beyond false anthropology and human suffering, plastic anthropology creates another problem for Christians and Jews. Under the new ontology of the person, the concept of dignity is being used as a weapon against religious liberty.

Catholics are very comfortable with the term dignity — it is a part of our tradition, and the idea of human dignity that is so common in the secular West comes directly out of the Bible and the Jewish and Catholic theology that each person is created in the image of God. But the concept of dignity is now being used to force Catholics to conform to plastic anthropology. How? Because when sexual predilection is equated with being, your sexuality is who you are.  And what you hold — i.e. your Catholic theology — is less important than who someone is. Your theological beliefs cannot be used to discriminate against who someone is. That is, the sacraments cannot be denied to a person because they are African, or Indian, or European. The sacraments cannot be denied to an inter-racial couple because a priest is racist. This is clear in Catholic teaching and in documents like Dignitatis Humanae.

Under the regime of plastic anthropology however, sexual identity is seen as the same as race or ethnicity, and thus a priest could be accused of violating human dignity if he will not perform a “marriage” for two women, even if one of whom “identifies” as a man.

While this has not yet impacted the Church on widespread level, the new ontology of the person is being written into law all over the world. It is, for example, found in the United Nations Yogyakarta Principles, in South African Law, and increasingly in US and Canadian law. Just two years ago in the state of Michigan in the United States, where I live, a constitutional amendment was passed that makes abortion and everything related to reproduction a constitutional right – even for minors with no parental consent or notification. It is possible for minors to have sex change surgeries that permanently sterilize them with no parental consent or notification. So while I cannot send one of my teenage daughters to the store to buy some aspirin or even non-alcoholic beer or a cigar, they can purchase an abortion, get sterilized, and receive radically experimental gender surgeries and hormone altering treatments.

As many of you from Africa, Latin America, and Asia know well, this is not a just American or European problem. Plastic anthropology is part of an international agenda – what Pope Francis has called “Ideological colonialism.”

2.      Transhumanism

The second big challenge – one especially connected to the digital age is the rise of transhumanism and post-humanism. This too is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon, and there is not a single form of trans or post-humanism, but in sum it is the idea of combining biology and technology to create a more advanced human being – a cyborg. While Catholics and Transhumanists both affirm health and flourishing, transhumanism extends beyond restoration of health to radical transformation.

One idea of transhumanism is that the human species in its current form is only in an early stage of our evolutionary development By combining biology with technology, we will be able to “evolve” into a higher form of human being. When the famous MIT computer scientist, Marvin Minsky was asked, “Will robots inherit the earth?” He answered, “Yes. They will be our children.”

As David Pearce, Founder, Humanity+ explains:

If we want to live in paradise, we will have to engineer it ourselves. If we want eternal life, then we’ll need to rewrite our bug-ridden genetic code and become god-like … only hi-tech solutions can ever eradicate suffering from the world.

Another goal of transhumanists is Designer Babies, where parents can request genetic engineers to edit the genes of their children in embryo to have certain traits: height, eye color, musculature, more intelligence, and so on. They are also working on creating artificial wombs and trying to create babies from the genetic material of homosexual couples.  Designer Babies are an extreme example of the consumerist attitude that Pope Francis discusses so well.


Transhumanism is also connected to eugenics. We already practice eugenic sex selection and genetic testing to eliminate children with Down syndrome. This is just the beginning.

I have a longer talk and short book where I go through the challenges of digital technology, but as most of you know, in 2018 a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, edited the genes of 2 twin girl embryos and they were born with resistance to the HIV virus. Think about this—this gets very dark, very quickly—if they can be HIV resistant, why not make them resistant to gonorrhea, and syphilis? And why not make them sterile so they can be used as sex slaves—what the film Blade Runner called replicants?

Uploading Ourselves

There is also aspirational transhumanism with the idea that we will be able to upload our brains to the internet and live in some form of biological/cyborg way. I cannot get into it here; much of this is science fiction, but it notably ignores our embodied, embedded nature. Nevertheless, these ideas are popular in techno-utopian circles. There are hundreds of billions of dollars being invested in transhumanist endeavors and these ideas are making their way into children’s imaginations through popular media and film.

Transhumanism and Transgenderism

Finally, it is important to mention transgenderism which is a subset of transhumanism. As I have already noted, transgenderism is not a simple phenomenon. There are various forms and theories of gender ideology. Jay Richards is doing detailed work on gender ideology and developing a more detailed biological definition of male and female that will be important for law, politics, sports, and so on.

Yet it important to see the connection between transgenderism and transhumanism because it is using technology to overcome biology. We are already acclimated to this because of widespread use of the birth control pill and vasectomies.  Transhumanism is the recurrent theme of Tower of Babel.  It is no longer the communist “withering away of the state” or Nazi the thousand-year Reich, but “person is himself.”

3.      Human Person as a Cog

The third dominant anthropology sees the human person as a cog – as matter to be used for the productivity in service of the state, the economy, the factory, or the social experiment. The individual exists solely for the collective or for the project. We see this in extreme forms in Gulag labor camps or in Chinese capitalist slave labor camps.

But we also see it in less extreme forms in industrial factories and farms with poor working conditions, where productivity outweighs personal dignity. And we see it in the technocratic World Economic Forum ethos that tells people they will “own nothing and be happy,” and in the behavior-modification and propaganda practiced by the alliance of state capitalism and big tech.

The cog mentality also influences global humanitarianism and sentimental expressions of compassion where poor people are seen as problems to be solved and socially engineered by experts. Poor people are not seen as persons with a social nature who should be the protagonists of their own stories of development, but as objects of charity and pity whose needs are satisfied simply by material comfort.

4.       Human Beings as a Scourge.

The scourge mentality sees humans as a problem for the planet and for the environment. We see this in its most extreme form in “deep ecology” and “zero-growth” movements, but the idea that there are too many people on the earth is common and widely accepted. As those of you who come from countries in Africa know especially well, population control has been a central policy of the poverty industry for years.

The view that humans are a “scourge” is a rejection of human exceptionalism. Humans are viewed as completely natural with no difference between man and animal, but even worse, we are thought to be a blight on the environment.

There are many sources of this idea. One is the propaganda campaigns about overpopulation and doom. Another is more subtle, but very influential: the rise of pantheism, which as the French social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville predicted, would be the dominant religion in democracies. Our desire for radical equality ultimately eradicates distinctions between God and man and between man and nature. He warned that this pantheism would be catastrophic for the dignity of the person.

This view of the person impacts behavior. Marriage rates are declining; couples are having fewer or no children. What is extremely sad and troubling is the number of young women who do not want children, or are even sterilizing themselves to save the environment and stop climate change. But not having children breeds loneliness, short-sightedness, and often nihilism. Here too compassion is important. It is a tragedy that a young woman would reject motherhood because she has been propagandized to think of human beings a scourge.

Young people are especially impacted by this. I think of Greta Thunberg and her misplaced passion about the environment. Rather than be irritated or dismissive, we should feel compassion for her that she has been propagandized to accept this anthropology of despair.

5.      The Human Being as a Commodity.

The fifth vision of man is that a human being is a commodity. Human beings are reduced to objects of trade. In some ways, this is the dominant one in the West and the capitulation of all the other visions.

I think the best way to understand this is through the work of the Italian Catholic philosopher, Augusto de Noce, and his concept of the Pure Bourgeois. Del Noce highlights three major cultural shifts that overlap in the 20th century

The Marxification of capitalism

Del Noce points out that during the Cold War in the fifties, the US technocratic elites and politicians began to shift the language of resistance to communism from a Christian / moral resistance to the idea that we would defeat communism with more productivity, technocracy, and more liberation especially sexual liberation. But these are Marxist, materialist values.

So, when the Berlin Wall fell, everyone was very enthusiastic – capitalism and democracy had won the day – we’d come to “the end of history.” But we made a mistake. We identified Marxism with its economics, while slowly embracing its cultural values. As then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, warned:

“We must be aware that Marxism was only the radical execution of an ideological concept that even without Marxism largely determines the signature of our century.”

Del Noce wrote in 1989 that “socialism failed in the East because it realized itself in the West.”

“Therefore, we can say that the West is Marxism’s full secularization, as well as its perfect realization. It is Capitalism that absorbs Communism, using it to erase religious sacredness and national sacredness, a goal it could not have reached in any other way.”

Sexual Revolution

The second shift connected to the development of “pure bourgeois” is the sexual revolution which Del Noce saw as the extension of Marxism and the rejection of the what he calls the sequence of “Family-Tradition-Objective Order of Values.”

If we understand Marxism properly, and not simply as an economic program, we see Marxists and socialists identify three primary obstacles to socialist reform: religion, private property, and the family – or as Engels states, “this present form of marriage.” These are mutually reinforcing institutions. — And note these three things are explicitly affirmed and promoted in Catholic teaching.

Wilhelm Reich who wrote The Sexual Revolution argued for radical permissiveness, homosexual marriage, public intercourse, sex education for children, and shaming of virginity. For Reich, sexual liberation was a tool to break down the family and any notion of transcendence. As Del Noce explains in The Crisis of Modernity, Reich “grasped perfectly the sequence of family- tradition – objective order of values and ends”

The sexual revolution has disoriented the individual, the family, and particularly the relationship between men and women. It encourages commodification of persons who are turned into objects for use, and has been a catalyst of disembodiment, which is a hallmark of our modern problems and mental health crisis. It promised liberation but it has harmed men, women, and children, especially the poorest women and children.

The Hippie Becomes a Yuppie

The third shift toward “pure bourgeois” or what Del Noce also called the “affluent society” is connected with the transformation of the 1960s cultural revolutionary to a technocrat professional—from the hippie to the yuppie, the young upwardly mobile professional.

The 1960s student revolutions saw the rise of the hippie, who on the one hand rejected tradition, religion, marriage, and bourgeois values; and on the other hand technology, the corporate world, and the military industrial complex. All the while, they were imbibing a gnostic aspiration for a New Age of Aquarius, and sentimental ideas about peace and love. When this eschatological promise failed to materialize, the hippie gave up on the dream and joined the professional class.

They retained their rejection of family, tradition, religion, and the objective order of values, while fully absorbing a bourgeois attitude of wealth and consumerism disconnected from any moral restraint or notion of transcendence. Del Noce explains that Christian Bourgeois becomes Pure Bourgeois. Capitalism and commerce were severed from their historical and moral foundations of commutative justice embedded within a moral universe – a vision that John Paul warned about in Centesimus Annus:

 [A] system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious.

In “pure bourgeois” happiness can be purchased. There is no transcendence. Everything becomes a hedonistic calculation. Everything becomes an object of trade: sex, children, our bodies, our organs, renting out our wombs, selling or licensing our sperm and eggs — everything and anyone can be bought or sold. Everything is for sale. You can even choose the designer baby you want. Here we see how pure bourgeois aligns with the transhumanism.

Del Noce explains that the pure bourgeois also impacts modesty. Nudity becomes an advertisement. Young girls are encouraged to become exhibitionist. A quick look at pop music, movies, and social media reveals the idea of modesty or a positive view of shame is lost. Pure bourgeois also manifests in other ways. Even ostensibly transcendent things are made immanent and utilitarian. Spirituality is for sale with meditation apps and yoga classes. So are personalities and vibes. Influencers offer lots of options: softgirl, emo, preppy, girlboss, tradwife, gamer, or quirky. Pick the pre-made personality and style of your choice right off the shelf. Everyone and everything is for sale.

(See Augusto Del Noce see The Crisis of ModernityThe Age of Secularization, and The Problem of Atheism, and my podcast with Del Noce’s translator Carlo Lancellotti)

Podcast with Carlo Lancellotti

All in all, the commodification of the person ultimately leads to abuse and to despair. We see this in euthanasia, abortion, suicide, and the degrading of woman and motherhood. Anything that reflects the natural, the organic, and the mystery of creation must be sterilized. It reflects what Karl Stern called The Flight from Woman.

It is important to note that the rise of the pure bourgeois is not simply an economic problem. Simply getting rid of capitalism or trade will not solve the problem. Capitalism as we know, it is at least as old as the commercial revolution of Middle Ages and it has not always been pure bourgeois. This does not mean there is nothing we can do. We need better political and economic policies, and more important, justice and rule of law that restricts trade in morally evil things. Just because there is a market for something does not mean there should be one. Yet the root problems of commodification—while the manifestation is economic – are ultimately anthropological, eschatological, and metaphysical and have to be addressed on that level.

I have given a very broad, thematic overview of very complex issues, and realize I left out a lot of nuance, but let me now move to Part 2 — how should we respond to these challenges?

Part 2: The Good News about the Human Person

Dealing with the problems before us requires a lot of pastoral care, respect, listening, and compassion for people who are suffering, and who have been treated as objects.

This pastoral care also includes teaching Catholic anthropology because so many, especially young people, are confused about what it means to be a person. We have to re-propose a Jewish and Catholic vision of the human person — the Gospel which includes the good news about man and woman.

1.    Being is Good

We have to a affirm and continually reiterate the fact that being is good; that matter is good; that the world is intelligible. And here the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish and Catholic tradition stand out. God creates the world and declares it good – very good. This is no small thing. The Hebrew Bible stands in contrast to the dominant ideas of paganism, nihilism, Marxism, and transhumanism.

As then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger noted in a series of homilies he gave on Genesis in the 1980s and collected in the book In The Beginning: the radical idea that being is good, that creation and matter are good stands in contrast to the idea that the world is evil; that the world is made out of dragon’s blood; or that that the body is something from which we have to escape.

Affirming the goodness of being and the goodness of human life creates the grounds for gratitude, reverence, and hope – and for the goodness of the body — all of which counter a vision of despair or instrumental use of the world and others.

2.    The Person is a Subject, Not an Object

Second, we must affirm that each human person is a subject. We are not simply objects to be manipulated, modified, sold, or socially engineered. Each of us is a unique, unrepeatable, subject – a protagonist of his or her own story.

We are not valued simply because we are productive. Of course, we’re supposed to be productive—to go and complete creation. The Bible tells us to be fruitful and multiply. But we’re not valued simply for our productivity or the use we provide for others. We are willed for our own sake. In this, you see some of the heroic parents who have children with disabilities who care for them and are a witness to the dignity of each human person. It is key to remember that the subjectivity of the human person is deeply connected with the affirmation of objective reality. John Paul II develops this beautifully in his book Love and Responsibility and, of course, the Wednesday audiences of the Theology of the Body.

3.    The Defense of Reason

The third thing we must do is defend reason. Affirm that the human being is reasonable, and that reason includes the deepest aspects of our lives – love, mercy, compassion, justice, and friendship.

This is a central theme in the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, that the modern world has reduced reason to the empirical. Only things that can be measured and empirically verified can be counted as rational. This is a problem on many levels. First, it’s incoherent on its own terms, because the claim itself cannot be empirically verified. This leads to an “irrational rationalism.” It also leads to scientism and ideology and has profoundly negative impacts on politics and justice.  But what I want to focus on today is how this limitation of reason impacts the human person – and how it is connected to despair.

Reducing reason to the empirical takes all the fundamental human experiences: love, beauty, hope, friendship, goodness, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and justice – and relegates them outside the realm of reason. It severs the relationships between reason and affectivity. People don’t have a framework for how to understand their emotions and deepest experiences. Their feelings and emotions are only valuable insofar as they can be used or commodified for marketers or social engineers. It leads to what Lewis called “the abolition of man.”

The defense of reason that Benedict XVI called us to is not simply an academic discussion – it is the defense of the human person and the human spirit.

4. Human Freedom

Related to the defense of reason is the defense of authentic freedom. The two dominant views of freedom today are materialist determinism and radical autonomy.

Materialist determinism rejects free will – we are simply determined by our genes, our neuro- biology, our environment, or by the forces of history or evolution.

Radical Autonomy says that freedom is the raw exercise of the will with no limits.

Though materialist determinism and radical autonomy are mutually exclusive, in a world that does not respect reason, they often combine with one another.

Both of these are attractive, and both are partially true. We are indeed influenced by our biology, environment, and our history and culture. This is why Catholic theology and tradition takes culture so seriously. We are also influenced by our biology. We are “made from the dust of the earth.” If we eat high sugar cereal in the morning, we won’t be able to concentrate as much if we had bacon and eggs.

It is also true we have autonomy. We do have a free will, but as Cardinal Ratzinger argued in Truth and Tolerance, a mere act of the will does not equal freedom. If I bang my head on the end of this podium and blood sprays around – not one of you would think, “wow, Michael is very free”. No, you would think I am crazy – because as Ratzinger explains an “irrational will is not a free will.” This, he adds is a “diabolical freedom” that does not deliver freedom or happiness – it only enslaves and ultimately destroys us.

Freedom has a purpose, and that purpose is love, worship and for sacrifice. As Benedict XVI said beautifully, we are not made for comfort, but for heroism. This is a message that people are longing for; the Catholic message for freedom under obedience to the commandments is not a boring, constricting moralism that takes away our fun. Rather it gives us a map for living for the “right kind of human existence.” (Ratzinger Spirit of the Liturgy)

This is standard Catholic anthropology, but the reality is that people do not know this, and we must explain it to them.

5. The Reality of Sin

A fifth characteristic of Catholic Anthropology is the reality of sin. It is somewhat unfashionable to talk about sin, but as Henri de Lubac, SJ writes, “a gospel that does not mention sin is not a gospel.” Addressing the reality of sin is important for at least two reasons – one political and one personal.

Politically: one of the dominant ideas from Rousseau and Marx that still shapes modern politics and utopian transhumanism is human perfectibility, or the idea  that evil comes from outside of us, and that if we could just tweak the economic system or the political system, everything would fall into place and we’d have heaven on earth.It is a false promise. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the line between good and evil runs through the human heart.” Today, “perfectibility” manifests in uploading ourselves to the internet, or fully automated luxury communism, or whatever social justice vision captures the imagination. Affirming that we are good but fallen helps people resist utopian promises which only enslave us.

It is also important on a personal level. Affirming the reality of sin also addresses the lived experience people have with evil and their own failings. We all have an awareness of sin. People are in search of healing and atonement. Without a proper sense of sin and the good news that Jesus has come to redeem us, we fall prey to escapism or nihilistic despair. A priest I know who works with young people argues that widespread tattoos, piercings, and general ugliness is part of self-punishment and defacing of the self. The therapeutic world does not solve our deepest needs.

In talking about the reality of sin, I am not suggesting legalism or Jansenist moralism. The commandments are a gift and blessing that teach us how to live well. Catholic theology does not teach about sin and repentance without also the good news of redemption – of Christ crucified and Christ resurrected.

6. Social Nature

The sixth Characteristic is that we have a social nature. We are neither radical individuals nor simply parts of the collective. We are embodied, and we are embedded persons born into a family, a community, and into a culture.

As Mary Eberstadt explains in her book, Primal Screams, a major problem we face today is the breakdown of the family. People increasingly do not know who they are; we are without roots. She explains that we are like “treed cats” who don’t know how to climb down a tree because we were taken away from our mother and siblings too early and never learned how to climb down. Without families we lack basic social knowledge and skills, and we lose part of our humanity.

The Catholic understanding of the social nature of the person also recognizes that our deepest relationships are not simply contractual – but covenantal. As the late English philosopher, Roger Scruton notes, a contractual view of life does not do justice to the “oaths” and “pieties” that embed us in history, our families, in our faith, and in the future. The Catholic vision of our social nature resists the regime of “pure bourgeois” commodification – everything is a contract. As Benedict XVI said in his Reichstag Lecture, we must not be constrained by the “bunker” of rationalism — or commodification of persons. We need to consistently re-affirm that our relationships are more than contracts – we are called to covenant.

7. Goodness of the Body—Embodied, Embedded Persons

We have to affirm the goodness of the body. There is deep confusion about embodiment that is one of the key sources of social problems, and psychological and spiritual suffering.

People tend toward the errors of either materialism or spiritualism. Materialism assumes we are simply matter with no qualitative difference with animals. How often do we hear that we share about 96% of our DNA with the chimpanzee? Sure, we are made out of the dust of the earth. We also share about 60% of our DNA with a banana, but that doesn’t tell us much. Materialism doesn’t match our lived experience as persons.

But the deeper problem today is a gnostic spiritualism that leads to a radical dualism of the person and the body. This is the idea that my real self is inside me, that the body is accidental, or something from which to be escaped or transcended. These ideas fuel many psychological and social problems – abortion and euthanasia, confused notions about sexuality, our emotional life, and more.

But these are wrong. We are not driving around in our body like we are driving around in a car. Nor are we just spirit. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “I am not my soul.” What we do in our spiritual and psychological life affects our body. What we see, watch, and listen to impacts us – not only our intellect and will, but our neural pathways, and neurotransmitters. This is why we have to pay great attention to human formation because it shapes our intellect and will, and encodes our biology. How we eat and sleep also affects our mental and spiritual life. As Harvard Psychiatrist, Dr. Chris Palmer is demonstrating, our metabolic health impacts our mental health.

The Christian message affirms the goodness of the body. Our bodies are not accidents, they are not something to escape from. We are created by God as embodied persons – and as we say every Sunday in the Creed – we get our bodies back at the end of time.

Conclusions and Suggestions

So, to concludeThe false visions of the person I laid out are utopian and nihilistic. They are anthropologies of despair that are causing suffering, anxiety, and confusion.

To address these we must teach anthropology. We need to know who we are. Catholic anthropology is a huge area of advantage for us – philosophically, theologically, scientifically, and existentially. The Catholic vision of the person is the most coherent, most beautiful, most aligned with our lived experience as human persons.

And we must teach it not only in words, but also through liturgy which is non-linguistic catechesis, and through friendship, communities, and what Peter Berger called “plausibility structures” that demonstrate the value of marriage, family, and deep human relationships.

The last decades have not only seen a decline of religious belief, they have also seen a decrease in happiness, and increases in anxiety, loneliness, depression, and suicide. As

writes: “Women are not happier, they are just more medicated.” Benedict XVI summarizes our situation:

We are living in alienation, in the salt waters of suffering and death, in a sea of darkness without light.

We must bring men and women out of the sea into the light of God… He says…. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ…

John Paul II wrote that the Christian vision of the human person amazed and transformed the ancient world. It was radical.

This amazement determines the Church’s mission in the world and, perhaps even more so, in the modern world.”

The key element of the Catholic vision of the human person is that each person is loved and willed for their own sake, and we can’t understand that easily if we are from broken families, if we are excluded, abused, used, and neglected.

We must, therefore, affirm the goodness of each person. The wonderful philosopher Joseph Pieper writes love is to seek the good of the other, and to say “I love you” is to say “It is good that you are.” And that is the message that we have to give every single person — because it is indeed good that you are.

This is the text of a talk edited for clarity, that I delivered on March 12, 2024 at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. I welcome discussion and debate.