This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

4.3. The Catholic View of Man

His social nature

We have already said that man is neither body nor soul, but is at the same time body-and-soul. We must now add to this another truth. While the first went against the grain of contemporary materialism, this second truth flies in the face of our pervasive individualism: “God did not create man as a ‘solitary being’ but wished him to be a ‘social being’. Social life therefore is not exterior to man: he can only grow and realize his vocation in relation with others.”[1] The human person is called from the very beginning to lead a social life: “It is not good for man to be alone.”[2]

Being made in the image and likeness of the triune God, the human person is naturally communal and distinguished from other creatures in this respect. The Church proclaims this truth about man constantly, and all of CST presupposes it.[3] Even in addressing issues of a purely economic concern, the need for communion is kept central. As Benedict XVI stated:

“One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation. If we look closely at other kinds of poverty, including material forms, we see that they are born from isolation, from not being loved or from difficulties in being able to love.”[4]

[1] LC, 32.

[2] Gen 2:18.

[3] See also: GS, 12; CCC, 1879; PT, 23; LP, 10.

[4] CV, 53.

Aquinas on the social nature of man

In his epistle, De Regno, St. Thomas provides various arguments for this position which are worth listing here due to their simplicity and coherence.

i. Man is physically unsuited for survival in isolation. “For all other animals, nature has prepared food, hair as a covering, teeth, horns, claws as means of defence or at least speed in flight, while man alone was made without any natural provisions for these things. Instead of all these, man was endowed with reason, by the use of which he could procure all these things for himself by the work of his hands. Now, one man alone is not able to procure them all for himself, for one man could not sufficiently provide for life, unassisted. It is therefore natural that man should live in the society of many.”[1]

ii. Man lacks the sufficiency of instinct found in other creatures. “All other animals are able to, discern, by inborn skill, what is useful and what is injurious, even as the sheep naturally regards the wolf as his enemy. Some animals also recognize by natural skill certain medicinal herbs and other things necessary for their life. Man, on the contrary, has a natural knowledge of the things which are essential for his life only in a general fashion, inasmuch as he is able to attain knowledge of the particular things necessary for human life by reasoning from natural principles. But it is not possible for one man to arrive at a knowledge of all these things by his own individual reason. It is therefore necessary for man to live in a multitude so that each one may assist his fellows, and different men may be occupied in seeking, by their reason, to make different discoveries—one, for example, in medicine, one in this and another in that.”[2]

iii. Through the gift of speech man is made for communication. “…the use of speech is a prerogative proper to man. By this means, one man is able fully to express his conceptions to others. Other animals, it is true, express their feelings to one another in a general way, as a dog may express anger by barking and other animals give vent to other feelings in various fashions. But man communicates with his kind more completely than any other animal known to be gregarious, such as the crane, the ant or the bee. With this in mind, Solomon says: ‘It is better that there be two than one; for they have the advantage of their company.’ ”[3]

[1] DR, 5.

[2] DR, 6.

[3] DR, 7.

The consensus of the pagans

This truth about man was acknowledged in the pagan world as well. Aristotle had proclaimed that “man is by nature a political animal,” which he follows by quoting Homer, who said that any man who lives outside of the community of other persons does so, not because he is acting according to human nature, but because he is either below or above humanity. He is either an ascetic or a villain—and both of these are, of course, exceptions which serve to prove the rule.[1]

[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book I, part 2.

The Enlightenment and the social contract

What has been said so far leaves little room for the so-called “libertarian” mentality, which would conceive of man as a “noble savage” who enters into society only as a necessary evil rather than as a natural good. Such a view, although it seems quite normal today, is quite modern and is in fact a product of Enlightenment humanism. Only during that period did it become a core doctrine, eventually evolving into the school of thought known as Liberalism. If, taking a wider view, we survey human history in general, we find that this anti-social point of view is quite in the minority. If we survey Christian history specifically, we find that it is non-existent.

Personal development

We are warned never to lose sight of the interdependence of man and his fellows. “The human person may never be thought of only as an absolute individual being, built up by himself and on himself.”[1] If we are to consider personal growth and realization in its fullness, we must be able to acknowledge the role of personal responsibility in the development of the individual, while at the same time taking into account our profound need for community. Pope Benedict XVI elaborated on the paradox:

“The human person by nature is actively involved in his own development…since as everybody knows, we are all capable of making free and responsible choices. Nor is it merely at the mercy of our caprice, since we all know that we are a gift, not something self-generated. Our freedom is profoundly shaped by our being, and by its limits. No one shapes his own conscience arbitrarily, but we all build our own ‘I’ on the basis of a ‘self’ which is given to us. Not only are other persons outside our control, but each one of us is outside his or her own control. A person’s development is compromised, if he claims to be solely responsible for producing what he becomes.”[2]

[1] CSDC, 125.

[2] CV, 68.

Sin in its social aspect

Although CST does not spend a great deal of time developing the theological understanding of sin, it necessarily takes it into account as it pertains to the subject. What this means is that CST acknowledges not only the personal aspect of sin, but also its social aspect. It teaches that “every sin is social insofar as and because it also has social consequences.”[1] While sin is a result of the personal actions of an individual’s free will, yet by virtue of human solidarity every sin of the individual directly impacts his neighbor. This is not by any means an attempt to cancel the responsibility of the individual sinner, but is rather, as was suggested above, an examination of sinfulness from its interpersonal aspect, which complements its individual aspect.

[1] CSDC, 117.

The law of descent—the law of ascent

To express the same thing in terms used by St. John Paul II, we can say that as a consequence of the social aspect of sin it is appropriate to speak of a “law of descent” which is a kind of “communion of sin” by which each sinful soul drags down the whole Church along with it. On the bright side, this also implies a corresponding “law of ascent” which operates by virtue of the “communion of saints,” and so it is said that “every soul that rises above itself, raises up the world.”[1]

The body of Christ is a unity that hangs together, for better or worse, in solidarity unto the end. It is precisely this social reality which informs the Catholic principle of solidarity which we will discuss below. For if our lives are intertwined, and if it is easier to live virtuously when material conditions are at an optimum level, then we ought to do our utmost to lift our neighbors from want, and we ought to see clearly that our own prosperity is not enough.

[1] RP, 16.

Rights and Duties

We proceed next to the notion of “right,” and this for two reasons. First, because it is a word that is on the tip of every tongue these days and so it seems reasonable to address the most familiar and pressing issues first. This will allow us to iron out any misconceptions that may exist, and clear the way for other issues that may have been obscured by the confusion. Second, we address the issue of right because it is directly linked to man’s social nature, which is to say: rights are social. Specific applications will be avoided at this point in favor of a few general observations about the nature of the right. For example, we will forgo the discussion of individual rights (such as those pertaining to life, speech, worship, etc.) until they present themselves naturally in the course of our study.

Rights imply relation

St. Thomas Aquinas said that “right is the object of justice.”[1] It is here that we can see the social or relational aspect of the right, since justice implies two parties. Insofar as a man is bound by justice, he is bound in a relationship, even if we reduce this relationship to its most primordial level, such as the original relation between creature and Creator. What follows from this observation is that there is really no such thing as a purely “individual” right which one claims for oneself against the claims of others and which is owed to him absolutely without distinction and unconditionally. Just as there are two parties in the relationship, there are two aspects of justice, and the right is only one of them—the other aspect being duty. If duty is neglected, the concept of right is undermined from the start. Nicholas Gomez-Davila struck at the heart of this confusion when he lamented: “It has become customary to proclaim rights in order to be able to violate duties.”[2] To violate one’s own duty is automatically to violate the rights of another.

[1] ST II-II, q. 57, a. 1.

[2] Scholia to an Implicit Text, 2587.

Rights presuppose duties

The Catholic Church always addresses the notion of right and duty at the same time. The former cannot be separated from the latter without undermining both. Following the reasoning of St. John XXIII, we can say that rights “are inextricably bound up with as many duties, all applying to one and the same person. These rights and duties derive their origin, their sustenance, and their indestructibility from the natural law, which in conferring the one imposes the other.”[1] To use but one example, we can say that the right to life carries with it the duty to preserve one’s life. The two components are two sides of the same coin: “to claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.”[2] This is why the Church, sensing an unfortunate “gap” between the letter and the spirit of rights,[3] calls for the constant fostering of a social sense that remains aware of the needs of the common good.[4]

[1] PT, 28.

[2] PT, 30.

[3] RH, 17.

[4] OA, 23.

Rights are not absolute

From this we can surmise that rights are not to be considered absolute. The Church calls them “inalienable,” which is to say, they are derived from human nature, but their exercise must always be circumscribed within limits. They are “contingent.” To take but one common example, the Church has consistently proclaimed the right to private property, and yet the Compendium says plainly that “Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable.[1] It will be appropriate to elaborate further on this particular point when we arrive at our discussion of private property below. For now, we need only illustrate that the notion of “right” is a balance, and is just as much directed outward, toward neighbor, as it is inward, toward the self. Rights must never become captive to a self-centered, egoistic paradigm if they are to remain healthy and functional.

[1] CSDC, 177.

Family Life

Having begun by acknowledging the social nature of man, we may proceed naturally to the most primordial of societies, which is the family. The family is the center of CST, but in order to grasp its importance we must first understand its parts. This leads inevitably to a discussion of man and wife, which confronts us with the reality of gender—of man as “man and woman.”

Male and female “from the beginning”

“Haven’t you read that in the beginning the Creator made them male and female?”[1] From Christ’s words to the Pharisees, St. John Paul II infers in his Theology of the Body that we have little reason to consider man simply as man, but that we should instead always consider man as “male and female.”[2] Here he is drawing a distinction between historical man and man in the state of innocence, which, for St. John Paul II, was a primordial and therefore pre-historical state.

The saint observes that the first chapter of Genesis is objective, while the second is subjective. In the objective account (Genesis 1) the scriptures, taking the perspective of God, do not speak of “man” as anything other than “male and female.” Thus, from God’s point of view, neither of the sexes precedes or follows the other, but both are created together “from the beginning.”[3]

The second account, on the other hand (Genesis 2), is subjective, which is to say, it is the story of creation from man’s point of view. It dwells on what St. John Paul II termed the “original experiences” of man which go to constitute and explain the human condition. Genesis 2 conveys these primordial happenings in a way that is comprehensible to us. This is why the second account has the character of myth and is essentially supra-historical (although not necessarily non-historical).[4]

Fallen man is “historical man.” His experience of life is valid only as far back as historical man has existed—but this does not and cannot reach into the pre-historical period of innocence. Such is the justification for and the purpose of the creation myth, with the result that, although it relates its details through a chronological scheme in which the male precedes the female, it must be interpreted first and foremost as conveying an ontological ordering of creation rather than an actual ordering of events in time.

The conclusion of all this is that we are not equipped to speak either historically or experientially of man without taking into account his relation to woman. This fundamental bifurcation is indispensable and unavoidable: there is no such thing as a genderless “person.” We must always follow Christ and speak of man as male and female “from the beginning.” Female-ness (and male-ness, for that matter) was not an afterthought based on God’s failed attempt to create a single, happy, gender-neutral human being.

In fact, the proper interpretation of Genesis is born out linguistically in the account itself. When the narrative speaks of the “original experiences”—such as the “original loneliness”—of Adam before the creation of woman, it employs a word which means mankind in general, without reference to gender. Thus, everything that is said of Adam before the creation of Eve must, to a certain extent, describe the experiences of mankind as a whole—including those of women. That is to say, women also have an experiential connection with the “original loneliness” felt by Adam (“mankind in general”) before the creation of Eve.

Thus, if we are not justified in considering mankind as one gender or the other, or as some abstract, genderless “person,” but instead must always consider mankind as the ambiguously complementary gendered dualism, and if we acknowledge that this dualism inevitably produces a third being from within itself (the child), then we come immediately to the family as a fundamental human reality, which is a single unit in love—an earthly reflection of the Triune God.

[1] Mt 19:4.

[2] Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Boston, 2006), pp. 132-133.

[3] Ibid., pp. 134-136.

[4] Ibid., pp. 137-141.

The cell of society, the cradle of life

Just as God is a Trinity, and cannot be considered as three separate Gods each going separate ways, so the fundamental social unit is the family, and not the individual as father, mother or child.[1] The family is the basic unit of political and economic organization in the Catholic tradition. As an association, it is prior to every other. “It is in this cradle of life and love that people are born and grow.”[2] Here the person takes his first steps into his personhood, learns responsibility, and develops his manifold potentialities. The family is the “fundamental structure for human ecology.”[3]

Because man is fundamentally a social being, it can be said that “only insofar as he understands himself in reference to a ‘thou’ can he say ‘I’.” It is in the family that he “comes out of himself, from the self-centred preservation of his own life, to enter into a relationship of dialogue and communion with others.”[4] This is why no law can threaten this institution—the State exists for the family and not the family for the State.

“No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and original purpose of marriage, ordained by God’s authority from the beginning. Increase and multiply. Hence we have the Family; the ‘society’ of a man’s house—a society limited indeed in numbers, but no less a true society, anterior to every kind of State or Nation, invested with rights and duties of its own, totally independent of the civil community…Inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the Family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature…The contention then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the Family and the household, is a great and pernicious error.”[5]

Pius XI affirmed this teaching in Casti Connubii, referring to marriage as “the principle and foundation of domestic society, and therefore of all human intercourse.”[6]

[1] LS, 157.

[2] CSDC, 212.

[3] CA, 39.

[4] CSDC, 130; See also: LS, 213.

[5] RN, 12-14.

[6] CC, 1.

The domestic Church

St. John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, goes further and establishes that the Family is in fact an active unit in the mission of the Church. He calls it an Ecclesia domestica or “Church in miniature” which is “in its own way…a living image and historical representation of the mystery of the Church.”[1] The Family is thus a “little Church,”[2] a “domestic Church,”[3] the “Church of the home,”[4] which is “grafted” into the mystery of the Church proper and is therefore a sharer in its mission; and so, while it is true that the family has been present always and everywhere, through Christ it has been baptized and made transcendent.

The family constitutes a “specific revelation” of the mind and purpose of God. In it and through it the highest forms of human communion are realized and presented to the world as a prophetic “sign of unity”—as such, the family is truly a “school of deeper humanity”[5] because in it are practiced all the acts of daily kindness: care for young and old alike, forbearance, forgiveness, and self-giving. Every part of the person is called into play and perfected.

[1] FC, 49.

[2] FC, 86.

[3] FC, 21.

[4] FC, 38.

[5] FC, 21.

Two-fold purpose of the family

After establishing the primacy of the family in Catholic tradition, we can emphasize that the importance of the family rests on its dual purpose: 1) It exists to fulfill the divine command to continue the race—“Be fruitful and multiply.” 2) It meets the basic human need of a close community in which love is paramount.

It must be remembered, however, that while both functions are essential, they must be kept in the order just given. Slight deviations in first principles are responsible for grave deviations in their applications. The propagation of children is the first purpose of marriage; conjugal and parental love is the second. This is but a consistent application of the principle set forth at the beginning of this study, that grace presupposes nature, and that the higher things in life require at least a bare minimum of the lower. Regardless of how noble the emotionally and personally edifying aspects of the marriage relationship might be, its natural basis is prior and is the foundation which cannot be removed without undermining the whole thing.

Moreover, we should note that the family is a biological necessity for mankind even more so than animals, whose offspring often need little to no support before reaching developmental independence. Man’s higher vocation implies a greater natural dependence in order for that vocation to develop, and this development occurs within the family.

This specific call to domestic life, as opposed to the simple act of reproduction, is a peculiar need for mankind. St. Thomas declares that: “The human male and female are united, not only for generation, as with other animals, but also for the purpose of domestic life, in which each has his or her particular duty.”[1] And he tenderly amplifies the same point elsewhere: “Before it has the use of its free-will, [the child] is enfolded in the care of its parents, which is like a spiritual womb.”[2]

If the importance of the family has not been made undeniably clear from what has already been said, then we need only meditate on the fact that Christ Himself remained concealed within this spiritual womb until the age of thirty, and it was only then that he began his public ministry. If it was deemed proper that the Savior should make full and good use of this institution, then we should probably not underestimate its formative power.

[1] ST I, q. 92, a. 2.

[2] ST II-II, q. 10, a. 12.

The needs of the family are central to CST

Here we must refer once more to the indispensable principle that grace presupposes nature, ensuring that we apply it comprehensively. Indeed it is impossible to over-stress this particular truth, and it is precisely the neglect of this truth which has led to numerous perversions of the social order. With regard to CST, the application of this principle means that the lofty and diverse duties of the family cannot be carried out in an economic vacuum. The family requires for its normal and healthy functioning a certain sufficiency of material goods. If we desire stable families, we require a stable economic substrate within which they can grow and thrive. It is ridiculous to complain, as some have made a habit of doing, that the family is decaying in its moral aspects, while at the same time refusing to make any provisions for its material aspects. Such an attitude turns its own complaint into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Divorce, absentee fathers, and abortion undoubtedly undermine virtue and human flourishing, and are rightfully condemned; but it is undeniable that poverty and insecurity are primary causes of such moral failures. It is short-sightedness pure and simple to condemn the deterioration of virtue while ignoring the economic structures that jeopardize the economic stability of the family, which acts as the training ground of virtue.