October 31, 2005

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 124-151

At least since the time of Plato, philosophers have been speculating on the nature of the human person. However, while one may call this speculation, it is not a hollow academic exercise. For one's perspective on the human person determines one's action. And a "philosophy of man" widely held in society goes a long way to determining the nature of that society.

If society views the human person as essentially a maker of things, a creator, you will tend to have a very action-oriented society. If personhood is seen as essentially in the quest for economic power, society may become focused on corporate capitalism or it may strive for the economic levelling of communism.

If a society defines the person primarily in terms of his or her own freedom or autonomy, such freedom may flourish. But at what cost? A narrow focus on the value of human autonomy may sweep away universal moral norms.


Likewise, a society that sees the person mainly in terms of psychological or intellectual energy may be quick to diminish the personhood of those whose mental functioning is lower than average.

The key words are "essentially" or "primarily." These are limiting words and they can lead to making one's view of the human person smaller than it really is. It is one thing to say that the human person has a social or an intellectual or artistic dimension. It is another to say that this dimension is the essence of what it means to be human.

This section of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church tries to steer us clear of "reductionist conceptions of the human person." These conceptions "make the image of man unclear by emphasizing only one of his characteristics at the expense of others" (n. 124).

Followed through to its natural end, every form of "reductionism" leads to tyranny. A focus on the "economic man" tends to grind every non-material aspect of the person under its feet. This can be seen in the outright persecution of religion in the former communist nations and in the shunting aside of religion and the spirit in the heavily capitalist nations.

But the human person is resilient. Suppress one dimension of personhood and it will have a way of popping up again despite the repression. Religion did not go away under communism; it went underground instead. The same with human conscience.

In Pol Pot's Cambodia, the intellectuals were all killed or sent to the countryside in an effort to create a rural utopia. In Mao-tse-Tung's Chinese Cultural Revolution, those who did not hew the party line were killed or sent for "re-education." But after the repression was lifted, new intellectuals began to emerge.


The Catholic Church urges humanity to embrace many dimensions of personhood. In this section of the compendium, it lists several:

  • The unity of the person. A person is both spiritual and material. Don't eliminate one for the sake of the other.
  • Opening to transcendence. The person is limited but, unlike other limited beings, strives towards the infinite. Persons are more important than things.
  • The freedom of the human person. Man "is the father of his own being" (n. 135), but his freedom is limited by the moral law. "Human freedom needs to be liberated" by the gift of self to others (n. 143).
  • The equal dignity of all. "The dignity of every person before God is the basis of the dignity of man before other men" (n. 144). Men and women complement each other. "This difference is enriching and indispensable for the harmony of life in society" (n. 146).
  • The social nature of human beings. The possibility of communion between and among people exists because of our social nature. But life in society does not lead automatically to communion, to the gift of self.

Strive for communion with the infinite, to make the gift of self. View the other not as someone who fits into a category. See him or her as a unique being whose life is a mystery opening into the infinite. The other person must not be analyzed so much as encountered.

Encounter helps to move us - and society - towards the kingdom. Changing unjust social structures is crucial in creating justice. More important is encountering the other, making a gift of oneself. Positive social change comes through "appealing to the spiritual and moral capacities of the individual and to the permanent need for inner conversion" (n. 137).

It is here that we find the attraction and the fruitfulness of a Mother Teresa or a Jean Vanier. Mother Teresa's spirituality was one of seeking the mystery of God in the dying derelicts of Calcutta. Jean Vanier found the inestimable human value of those who do not meet society's standards for full mental functioning.


Neither reduced the person to something less than he or she is before God. Tyranny is restrained by their fuller, all-encompassing "philosophy of man." Both open the way for society to grow to true human freedom and fulfillment. Strive for communion with the infinite and you will help to build a better world.