This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Self-ownership

Modern man imagines his body and his “self” as yet one more piece of his private property. The popes, however, suggest otherwise:

Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given, but, man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed.[1]

We have already discussed in-depth the proper understanding of private property,[2] explaining how and why it can never be considered absolute but is itself only one good in a hierarchy of goods, and he who denies the hierarchy destroys its component goods. However, at this point it might be beneficial to refute another modern error which considers the human person, particularly the physical body, as the legal property of the person to whom it belongs. Self-ownership, while true from a particular point of view, is really only a half-truth, and is therefore misleading if adopted blindly as a guiding principle of law. For example, if we adopt this view unquestioningly, we run the risk of having to mediate between the rights of the unborn and the rights of mothers, and we are led down a very dark road. Much of this misunderstanding stems from our deeply engrained individualism which tells each man that he is completely responsible for what he is and what he becomes. He therefore ought to consider his own “self” his property. But Benedict XVI puts forth another view:

The human person by nature is actively involved in his own development. The development in question is not simply the result of natural mechanisms, 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.[3]

Pope Francis combats the same mentality, encouraging instead a willing participation in the natural body we have received as a gift from the Creator:

“…thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment.”[4]

We cannot own ourselves because we are a gift, and the closest a man can come to owning himself is by making a gift of himself to another. Or, in other words, whosoever wishes to save his life must lose it.[5] Only by acknowledging this principle of the gift and its primordial role in our very existence can we properly understand the nature of our “ownership” of ourselves. It turns out to be a humbler notion than contemporary political discourse would lead us to believe.

[1] CA, 38.

[2] Section III, parts 2 and 3a-c.

[3] CV, 68.

[4] LS, 155.

[5] Mt 16:25.

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