Fr. Ramón called me today asking for help. Apparently the religion department at Providence University will be hosting a symposium this April on human dignity. Fr. Ramón is too busy right now to submit a proposal as soon as they demand one (i.e., pronto), so he’s asked me to draft such a proposal. He asks that I emphasize the bodily basis of human dignity, as well as perhaps tie it into this being the year of the Eucharist.
The follwing are the notes I’ve written tonight (including two links to articles I’d like to read for more ideas). I welcome edifying comments.
Also, though it may sound strange, I would like to hear any ideas for activities about dignity and/or the body (e.g., the human pretzel game, etc.). Fr. Ramón tells me the Chinese don’t do too well with abstract theology, so something practical or hands-on would be better. My experience has shown me as much, but that doesn’t butter my bread, so to speak.
The Human Body the Body of Human Dignity
It is often said that Christianity is the religion of the book. The truth, however, is that it is the religion of the body. The Bible begins with God forming a man-body and woman-body from the body of the earth. The New Testament is rooted in the bodily life and death of Christ and it continues that mystery in the bodies and souls of the Church. >> Jhn 1:1-5, 14; Col 1:21-23; 2 Cor 3:2-3
The mystery of Christ’s Incarnation is the key to understanding embodied human dignity. By becoming man, Christ not only showed the value of the human person, but also the human body. God did not merely reach us in Christ as a vague personal force. No, he chose to become a human being with a human body. The Christian gospel shows us that God values the body not only as worth being redeemed but in fact as a vessel capable of effecting redemption. Indeed, Christ’s incarnation was a bodily event through and through. He did not merely appear in the world, like a man stepping from one room into another. No, as the creeds of Christian faith make clear, he was born of the virgin Mary.
Humans are embodied people. Humans are not merely souls in flesh houses. We are a body-souls, unions of body and spirit. Any religious or social impulse that avoids or denies the reality of the body is an attack on the dignity of humans. Christian theology exalts the importance, and thus the dignity, of the human body. St. Thomas Aquinas, using Aristotelian terminology, called the body the form of the soul, meaning a person body is the proper manifestation of her soul. To denigrate the body, therefore, is to denigrate the soul.
A common confusion about the Christian attitude towards the body stems from the huge ascetic and monastic tradition of the Church. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, called his body “brother ass” – a stubborn, hungry, dirty mule that must be beaten and pulled to accomplish the greater work of the soul. Any anti-body tendencies in the monastic tradition, however, stem from honesty about sin. The biblical idea of “flesh” is not simply about flesh and blood. Rather, “flesh” refers to the spiritual blindness, moral disorder and pervasive lack of love for God that makes not only the body but also the mind and soul of humans the enemies of God.
The Bible and the holy Fathers are, in one sense, against the body because in its current “fallen” state, it wars against the life of the soul. Yet, these same ascetics are for the body because they know it has an inseparable place in God’s redemption. The body is good because it can and will be transformed into holy glory – and yet, it is bad precisely because it MUST be transformed. Christ’s redemption, as the New Adam, is a reversal and glorification of the order of creation as it was marred by the original sin of the first Adam. Man was first formed as a body and then received a rational and moral spirit. Christians, by contrast, first receive a new heart and mind by faith and baptism, and await the final redemption of their bodies. >> 1 Cor 15. Christian salvation is not just a mental or spiritual reformation; it is a total recreation of the whole person: body, blood, soul and mind.
Christian salvation is not only a bodily event, it is also a communal event. Nobody is saved apart from his body and no “body” is saved apart from others. The summit of redemption is to be reborn in the Church, the body of Christ. And the summit of this life in Christ’s BODY is the Eucharist. The Eucharist continues and applies the redemption of the world – both by offering the forgiveness of sins Christ won in his crucifixion and by infusing the new life Christ brought in his resurrection. TO understand the whole biblical message, we can imagine our world as a darkened room. The messianic hope of Israel was God’s continual knocking on the door of our world. The incarnation of Christ was God’s grip on the doorknob of our world. Christ’s crucifixion was the key that opened the door of God’s paradise to our world. His resurrection was the light switch that freed our world from its darkness. And now, in our present age of ongoing redemption, the Eucharist is the meal we enjoy in the very presence of God. >> Lke 22:17-20; 1 Cor 10:16-22, 11:23-29
Pope John Paul II has declared this to be the year of the Eucharist. More generally, it is no coincidence that two of the greatest themes of the Pope’s twenty-five year pontificate are the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church and his “theology of the body.” For the Eucharistic theology is nothing less than theology of the body. The Eucharist is the glue that holds the Body of Christ together as the Church and it is the glue that holds each Christian together as a member of that Body. It cannot be stressed enough what dignity the Eucharist gives the body: the highest act of worship a Christian can do** is to receive the BODY and BLOOD of the Lord. No abstract pondering. No anti-body frenzy.
Because human dignity inseparable from the human body, dignity is at the very least coextensive with the life of the body. The span of our dignity is never any shorter than the span of our lives. Thus, any attempt to separate the “real person” from the body in which we find him is an assault on human dignity.
This is why abortion is such an outrage to the Church. It is beyond question that a human body begins at conception. Further, it is only occasionally denied these days that a human life begins at conception. What is denied by many pro-choice advocates, however, is that this human bodily conception entails the same dignity as a born or fully grown person. Abortion assaults human dignity because it seeks to split the human person into a undignified primitive body and a later-dignified body person.
Euthanasia commits the same error by forcing a wedge between a person’s dignified, pre-hospitalized life and her hospitalized, valueless life.
 When I first wrote this, I wrote “referendum”! But no, Taiwan is not voting to suspend human dignity. They’ll just violate it without a vote like everyone else. ;o)