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Sacrament And Image Essays In The Christian Understanding Of Man

With the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council formulated the “Magna Carta” for integral human development. The Church sees herself as a part of humanity, intimately connected to the “joys and the hopes, the sadness and the anguish of the human person today” (GS § 1). By no means can you separate “questions about the current trend of the world, about the place and role of man in the Universe, about the meaning of individual and collective strivings, and about the ultimate destiny of reality and humanity” (§ 3).

The eternal Son of God, who “for us and our salvation was made man,” is the prototype of man for others. Likewise the Church, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated, “is the Church insofar as she is the Church for others.” The Council Fathers, after explaining in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium the origin, essence, and mission of the Church, speak in Gaudium et Spes of the salvific service of the Church for the integral development of the human person.

“The human person deserves to be preserved; human society deserves to be renewed. Hence the focal point of our presentation will be man himself, whole and entire, body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will” (§ 3). The focus of the council is thus “on the world of men; . . . that world which is the theater of man’s history, and the heir of his energies, his tragedies and his triumphs; that world which the Christian sees as created and sustained by its Maker’s love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ, Who was crucified and rose again to break the strangle hold of personified evil, so that the world might be fashioned anew according to God’s design and reach its fulfilment” (§ 2).

The Most Urgent Questions of the Day

This is the theme for the dialogue among persons in the modern world. The Church offers herself to all humanity of good will to collaborate in finding resolutions to the most urgent questions of the day: the inviolable dignity of every human life, social justice, peace among the families of nations, and the fight against destructive forces and powers and the enemies of humankind.

Whoever proposes an end must also know the means to reach that end. If the means are immoral, then the end is compromised and discredited. If the sense of existence and the end of history are understood in a communistic way (the creation of a paradise on earth), or in a utilitarian manner (the highest level of happiness for the greatest number of people), or  as in social Darwinism (the realization of the survival of the fittest), or imperialism (the dominion of a nation over other peoples), or unbridled capitalism (the law of the exploitation of the resources of the world and of the dignity of the worker for the sake of wealth), then the means used will violate the dignity of man and impede integral human development.

History shows that the nucleus of human existence and of human development is in the recognition of God as the first origin and end of all of creation. The entire scope of human history is the Reign of God on heaven and on earth.

We cannot conceptualize in a speculative manner the Kingdom of God or produce it with our hands, by our own strength. The Kingdom of God is grace, and grace brings the Holy Spirit into the world, the Spirit of charity that sanctifies and assists, the Spirit of understanding and of love, that changes our hearts and introduces in all human relations a movement of freedom. The Spirit gives the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, as well as all of the other gifts and charisms, given to us for the sake of the other, that make us collaborators of God in the bringing about of his Kingdom. The Kingdom of God has already begun in this time and in this world, when the Church, with the arrival of the Messiah, carries out her mission in the Holy Spirit, “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk 4: 18–19). In the spirit of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, we must serve, with the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, our suffering brothers and sisters, recognizing in them Christ himself.

Integral Christianity

Christianity cannot be reduced to a bourgeois adaptation of Christ’s message consisting merely of interiority, love of neighbour, and individual philanthropy. The Kingdom of God is not merely above and outside of this world, nor is salvation for this world alone, in the sense of a social and purely humanitarian NGO.

Reverence toward God and responsibility for the world are inseparably connected in Christ, who did not come into this world to free us from it, but to lead man and the world to their authentic destiny in the salvific plan of God. Indeed, man, insofar as he is a creature, in all of his existence, stands before God his creator, redeemer, and fulfiller. Yet it is clear that the human person, with all of his mortal limitations, is capable of losing the gifts, of morally failing, and is unable to save himself. All of the fleeting goods and riches of this world are not able to satisfy the infinite desire for happiness in the heart of the human person. All of the knowledge and thought emanating from our limited reason will never be able to reveal the mystery of being. Even the most altruistic of works come to nothing “if they do not have charity” (1 Cor 13:1) and if their end is not in the love that God has “poured into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5).

Our human reason, therefore, must always be considered in the context of the supernatural faith that illumines, so that we have a proper understanding of freedom.

The Limits of Ideology and Modernity

The political ideologies that we have suffered and endured in the twentieth century and that, under disguise, continue today are concerned only with the growth of their totalitarianism, with the absolute power of men over persons. Behind totalitarianism is the attempt to seize, in thought and action, the foundational aspects of being human, of the human person in the world, and to substitute a new man-made creation for God’s creation. Totalitarian rulers consider themselves wiser and more capable than God. The program of totalitarianism is a humanism without and against God. It is a project contrary to the integral human development that the Church offers the world with the Gospel of Christ. The Church’s vision is founded in a synthesis of creation and redemption, of faith and reason, of grace and freedom, of the fullness of the divine efficacy and the authentic human collaboration in the realization of the universal and salvific will of God.

We also see new forms of colonialism, which aim at modernization but in reality only aggressively import a deformed image of the human person, that of the so-called society of well-being (see Populorum Progressio § 52).

The criteria for such a society of well-being must take into consideration the countries of the developing world and not only Europe and North America. Otherwise there would be the problem of the negation of other cultures as inauthentic and illegitimate.

The Image of the Human Person

The difference between integral development from a point of view which is social, material, economic, and political and a totalitarian development with its programs of self-redemption rests in the image of the human person, in anthropology.

The human person is fundamentally a creature of God and not a casual product of blind and arbitrary matter or the construction of social engineers.

In essence, the human person proceeds from the idea that God has for him and develops in the context of time and history. In knowledge and will, he reflects and represents in the world the truth and the goodness of God. The human person thus grows through thought and work, through spiritual attitudes and moral conviction. So man, from the beginning, is a being of culture, of the sciences, and of the theoretical and practical arts. Without original sin, there would have been only integral development; after, however, and according to our redemption in Christ, remains the continuing battle against destructive power and sin.

From Revelation we know that God created man in the state of integrity. It would be a misunderstanding to see the original state of integral nature either as a fairy tale or as empirically demonstrable, at the chronological beginning of the history of humanity. Creation rather signifies the origin and the essence of the created in the idea of God as the beginning and the end of all humanity. God therefore is the measure and the norm for being truly human. The human person, created in the image and likeness of God, participates in and represents the essential truth and goodness of God. “God saw what he had made, and saw that it was good” (Gn 1:31).

Whoever does the good—even if he does not yet recognize God explicitly—is a mediator of the goodness of God. Man glorifies God and renders visible the goodness of God in good works. Therefore, we can collaborate with all people of good will for the good of humanity; we can learn from philosophy, from science, from those who are not Christian. If, for example, we take Aristotle and Mahatma Gandhi, it would appear wrong to divide in an exaggerated manner Christians from the rest of humanity, as if to assert that “all of the pagans’ virtues are vices, and all of their knowledge is only error and fallacy.” Grace and nature, faith and reason, must be distinct but not separate, so that the relation between the Church and the State, between religion and society, is determined by the cooperation for the common good, and not by mutual confrontation. Hence, Gaudium et Spes speaks to the assistance that the Church herself has received from the contemporary world (§ 44), after explaining what the Church offers to the world.

Facing Evil Constructively

However, from Revelation we also know the origin of evil. The malum does not derive from a deficiency in the work of creation or from a malignant God, but from a negative action of man in his relationship with God. With the original sin of Adam and its consequences, disintegration entered into the relationship between God and man, into the relationship between human persons, into man’s relation with the animal world and the environment, and into his role in lived history. The multiplication of physical evils is only a manifestation of moral evil. We cannot separate ourselves from this valley of tears. Nobody may himself decide to become the redeemer of his neighbour. All of the experimentation to produce an ideal state through philosophical systems and means of political power has failed miserably and has left only disasters in their wake.

Neither does an infinite process for the optimization of humanity exist, because the possibility of abuse goes hand in hand with scientific progress. Social networks may be used in either a constructive or destructive manner. Organ transplants, which save lives, also offer new possibilities for crimes against humanity through the commercial sale of organs. Technical progress remains ethically ambivalent. The alternative between the good and the bad is no longer valued, all in the name of, and for the sake of, progress. As long as the human spirit asks the question of the truth of being and of the moral value of an act, it will not be able to avoid taking a position—with this choice set on a firm foundation: referring to God as the origin and the end of the human person.

Only the Creator is also able to be the Redeemer. Rather than a utopia of humanity, Christ brought the world the Kingdom of God. Only where God reigns through love can the human person be truly free. In Baptism we become a new creation, equipped to cooperate in the work of God, with all of our strength, talents, and spiritual and corporal charisms, so that in the end the project of the salvific will of God is fulfilled in the new heaven and the new earth. “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them” (Eph 2:10). The justification of the sinner brings about the integral restitution of the human person, now adopted as a son or daughter of God. We are then called to overcome the old world of sin, of egoism, and of the enmities both within oneself and within the world.

Instead of working in a destructive manner, we desire to contribute to the growth of the Reign of God in a constructive manner, despite falls and disappointments. Christ has already established the Reign of God, though it remains hidden; the Church, if it remains faithful to him, is mandated to announce the Gospel, to mediate the grace of the Holy Spirit through the sacraments, and to support the project of the integral salvation of God, through her participation in the integral development of the human person. Each human person is an end in himself, and one must never make another person a means for an end that is lower than the lofty end of the realization of the will of God for that particular person.

The Christian battles against physical and moral evils and contributes constructively to the conditions of life pertaining to the dignity of the human person. At the foundation of this dignity are the rights to lodging, food, and clothing, as well as the right to earn a living for himself and for the well-being of his family, and in his work to grow and develop in capacity and in turn contribute to the deepening of the awareness of his proper identity. As the human person is a spiritual being and totally endowed with freedom, he enters the challenge of participation in political life, in society, and in all of mundane reality, and his relative autonomy there is recognized by the Church and its Magisterium.

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is given to all—even to atheists—with the purpose of offering to all men and women of good will a sincere dialogue on the most important topics with regard to peace and war, to the development of modern weapons and their capacity to destroy all of humanity, and to the incredible possibilities of science and technology that make possible for the human family a future of dignity.

We may not divert our gaze, while more and more people go hungry, are deprived of their rights, and are reduced to slavery; while the drama of the refugees arriving on European shores and at the American border intensifies; and while the risks and challenges of globalization are ever present.

The Church participates in the contemporary world not as a “lobby,” concerned only with its own particular interests. All of Gaudium et Spes is oriented toward the dignity of the human person, the human community, and the ultimate sense of being and of human action; it “lays the foundation for the relationship between the Church and the world, and provides the basis for dialogue between them” (§ 40). It offers not only dialogue, but also collaboration, “until the brotherhood of all men is accomplished” (§ 3). To quote from its concluding section:

“By holding faithfully to the Gospel and benefiting from its resources, by joining with every man who loves and practices justice, Christians have shouldered a gigantic task for fulfilment in this world, a task concerning which they must give a reckoning to Him who will judge every man on the last of days. Not everyone who cries, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the Father’s will by taking a strong grip on the work at hand. Now, the Father wills that in all men we recognize Christ our brother and love Him effectively, in word and in deed. By thus giving witness to the truth, we will share with others the mystery of the heavenly Father’s love. As a consequence, men throughout the world will be aroused to a lively hope—the gift of the Holy Spirit—that someday at last they will be caught up in peace and utter happiness in that fatherland radiant with the glory of the Lord” (§ 93).

This essay is adapted fromCardinal Müller’s Commencement Address delivered at Christendom College, Front Royal, Virginia, on May 13, 2017.



By Christopher West

    What if I told you that the key to understanding God’s plan for human life is to go behind the fig leaves and behold the human body, naked and without shame?  What if I told you that the only way to see the invisible mystery of God is through the vision of the human body in its masculinity and femininity?  What if I told you that the Christian mystery itself is simply unintelligible unless we understand the meaning of sexual difference and our call to sexual union?
    You’d probably think I was a bit obsessed with sex and naked bodies. You might even think I’ve been corrupted by our pagan, pornographic culture. Understandable. But what if Pope John Paul II were telling you these things?
    Indeed, these – among other things – are what we learn from the first major catechetical project of John Paul II’s pontificate known as the “theology of the body.” In this collection of 129 audience addresses delivered between September 1979 and November 1984, John Paul developed what promises to be one of his most enduring and important contributions to the Church and the world.
    The theology of the body is a scriptural reflection on the human experience of embodiment connected as it is with erotic desire and our longing for union. It’s divided into two main parts. First, the Pope develops an “adequate anthropology” based on the words of Christ. In order to have a “total vision of man,” we must look to our experience of embodiment “in the beginning” (Mt 19:8), in our history (Mt 5:27-28), and in our destiny (Mt 22:30). In the second part of his catechesis, John Paul applies his distinctive Christian humanism to the vocations of celibacy and marriage, and also to the moral issue raised by Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.
    Of course, in a brief article such as this, we can only provide a thumbnail sketch of the actual content of the Pope’s revolutionary catechesis. We’ll begin with his main idea.


    The Pope’s thesis, if we let it sink in, is sure to revolutionize the way we understand the human body and sexuality. “The body, and it alone,” John Paul says, “ is capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the invisible mystery hidden in God from time immemorial, and thus to be a sign of it” (Feb 20, 1980).
    A mouthful of scholarly verbiage, I know. What does it mean? As physical, bodily creatures we simply cannot see God. He’s pure Spirit. But God wanted to make his mystery visible to us so he stamped it into our bodies by creating us as male and female in his own image (Gn 1:27).
    The function of this image is to reflect the Trinity, “an inscrutable divine communion of [three] Persons” (Nov 14, 1979). Thus, in a dramatic development of Catholic thought, John Paul concludes that “man became the ‘image and likeness’ of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning.” And, the Pope adds, “On all of this, right from ‘the beginning,’ there descended the blessing of fertility linked with human procreation” (ibid).
    The body has a “nuptial meaning” because it reveals man and woman’s call to become a gift for one another, a gift fully realized in their “one flesh” union. The body also has a “generative meaning” that (God willing) brings a “third” into the world through their communion. In this way, marriage constitutes a “primordial sacrament” understood as a sign that truly communicates the mystery of God’s Trinitarian life and love to husband and wife – and through them to their children, and through the family to the whole world.


    This is what Adam and Eve experienced “in the beginning.” The very sentiment of sexual desire as God created it to be was to love as God loves in the sincere gift of self. Since this call to love is the summary of the Gospel, John Paul can say that if we live according to the nuptial meaning of our bodies, we “fulfill the very meaning of [our] being and existence” (Jan 16, 1980). It is for this reason that a man clings to his wife and they become “one flesh” (see Gn 2:24).
    In his exegesis of the creation accounts, the Holy Father speaks of this original unity of the sexes as flowing out of the human being’s experience of original solitude. Man realized in naming the animals that he alone was aware of himself and free to determine his own actions; he alone was a person called to love. It’s on the basis of this solitude – an experience common to male and female – that man experiences erotic desire and his longing for union.
    While among the animals there was no “helper fit for him,” upon awaking from his “deep sleep” the man immediately declares: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gn 2:23). That is to say, “Finally, a person I can love.” How did he know that she too was a person called to love? Her naked body revealed the mystery!
    Prior to the rupture of body and soul caused by sin, the body enabled them to see and know each other “with all the peace of the interior gaze, which creates… the fullness of the intimacy of persons” (Jan 2, 1980). Living in complete accord with the nuptial meaning of their bodies, the experience of original nakedness was untainted by shame (Gn 2:25).


    The entrance of shame indicates a radical change in their experience of embodiment. It indicates the loss of grace and holiness. “Original man” gives way to “historical man” who must now contend with lust in his heart.
    Lust is erotic desire void of God’s love. Hence, if we even look lustfully at others, we’ve already committed adultery in our hearts (see Mt 5:28). Christ’s words are severe in this regard. John Paul poses the question: “Are we to fear the severity of these words, or rather have confidence in their salvific content, in their power?” (Oct 8, 1980).
    Their power lies in the fact that the man who utters them is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). Christ didn’t die and rise from the dead merely to give us coping mechanisms for sin. His death and resurrection are efficacious. They effectively “liberate our liberty from the domination of concupiscence,” as John Paul expresses it.
    This means if we open our bodies once again to the “breath” of the Holy Spirit, we can experience a “real and deep victory” over lust. We can rediscover in what is erotic that original nuptial meaning of the body and live it. This liberation from lust is, in fact, “the condition of all life together in truth” (Oct 8, 1980).


    What about the experience of embodiment and our longing for union in the eschaton? Didn’t Christ say we’ll no longer be given in marriage at the resurrection (see Mt 22:30)? Yes, but this doesn’t mean our longing for union (marriage) will be done away with. It means it will be fulfilled. Sacraments are merely earthly signs of heavenly realities. We no longer need signs to point us to heaven, when we’re in heaven.
    Heaven is the eternal consummation of the marriage between Christ and the Church. This is what we’re created for. This is the ultimate longing of the human heart. And this is what the “one flesh” union points to from the beginning (see Eph 5:31-32).
    Hence, in the resurrection of the body we rediscover – in an eschatological dimension – the same nuptial meaning of the body in the meeting with the mystery of the living God face to face (see Dec 9, 1981). “This will be a completely new experience,” the Pope says, but “it will not be alienated in any way from what man took part in from ‘the beginning,’ nor from ...the procreative meaning of the body and of sex” (Jan 13, 1982).


    Only by understanding who man is originally, historically, and eschatologically can we understand how man is to live. In other words, having outlined an “adequate anthropology,” the door is now opened to a proper understanding of the Christian vocations of celibacy and marriage.
    Those who are celibate “for the sake of the kingdom” (Mt 19:12) are choosing to live in the heavenly marriage on earth. In a way, they’re “skipping” the sacrament to participate more directly in the real thing. By doing so, they step beyond the dimension of history – within the dimension of history – and declare to the world that the kingdom of God is here (Mt 12:28). Authentic Christian celibacy, then, is not a rejection of sexuality or a devaluation of marriage. It’s the expression on earth of its ultimate purpose and meaning!
    As a vocation to holiness, marriage is meant to prepare men and women for heaven. But in order for it to be adequate heaven preparation, the model must accurately image the divine prototype. The sacramentality of marriage, then, consists in the manifesting of the eternal mystery of God in a “sign” that serves not only to proclaim that mystery, but also to accomplish it in the spouses (see Sep 8, 1982).
    All of married life constitutes this sign. But nowhere is this sign more dramatically manifested than when husband and wife become “one flesh.” Just as the body expresses the soul of a person, the “one body” that spouses become in conjugal intercourse expresses the “soul” of their married life. “Indeed the very words ‘I take you to be my wife – my husband,’” the Pope says, “can be fulfilled only by means of conjugal intercourse” (Jan 5, 1983).


    John Paul’s original insights provide a whole new context for understanding the Church’s teaching on sexuality, particularly her teaching against contraception. This is, in fact, the linchpin of all sexual morality. For as soon as sexual union is divorced from its inherent link with procreation, any means to sexual climax can be justified (the sexual revolution of the 20th century has certainly demonstrated this in practice).
    Based on the logic of the theology of the body, one can speak of morality in the sexual relationship according to “whether or not it has the character of the truthful sign” (Aug 27, 1980). All sexual morality, then, comes down to this simple question: Does this behavior incarnate God’s love or does it not?
    For those who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to understand the “great mystery” of nuptial union, contraception is simply unthinkable. Nuptial union is meant to proclaim the mystery of the Trinity – that “God is life-giving love.” In this sense the Pope says the “language of the body” is prophetic. However, an intentionally sterilized act of intercourse proclaims the opposite. It changes the “language of the body” into a specific denial of God’s creative love, making the spouses “false prophets.”
    Nuptial union is also meant to be a sacramental sign of Christ’s union with the Church. But for sacraments to convey spiritual realities, the physical must accurately symbolize the spiritual. Insert contraception into this picture and (knowingly or unknowingly) a couple engages in a counter-sign of Christ’s union with the Church. This is why an intentionally sterilized act of intercourse can never consummate a marriage – it is a contradiction of the very essence of the “great mystery” of the sacrament.


    If, as John Paul teaches, the body and it alone is capable of communicating the mystery of God’s love to us; and if there is an enemy of God who wants to keep us from God’s love – where, then, would he go to do it? The Church Father Tertullian says that Satan attempts to counter God’s plan of salvation by plagiarizing the sacraments. And where better to begin than with the “primordial sacrament”?
    Satan’s goal is to scramble the language of our bodies. And look how successful he’s been. How many people, for example, think that the body and the gift of sexuality are the last places to look for the presence of God?
    Much is at stake in our failure to understand the language of our bodies. As John Paul II says, this is obviously “important in regard to marriage.” However, it “is equally essential and valid for the understanding of man in general” (Dec 15, 1982). The theology of the body is, in fact, according to John Paul, the basis of the most suitable education in what it means to be a human being (see Apr 8, 1981). Yes, the battle raging in our Church and our world regarding sexual morality is nothing short of a battle for the very meaning of human existence.
    Hence, the theology of the body should not be considered merely a minor discipline among many in the overall scope of Catholic teaching. Again, according to the Holy Father, what we learn by reflecting on Christ’s words in the theology of the body “is, in fact, the perspective of the whole Gospel, of the whole teaching, in fact, of the whole mission of Christ” (Dec 3, 1980).


    The theology of the body is a clarion call for the Church not to become more “spiritual,” but to become more incarnational. It is a call to allow the Word of the Gospel to penetrate our flesh and bones. When this incarnation of the Gospel takes place in us, we see the Church’s teaching on sexual morality not as an oppressive set of rules, but as the foundation of a liberating ethos, a call to experience the redemption of our bodies, a call to rediscover in what is erotic the original meaning of sexuality which is the very meaning of life. And this is the first step to take in renewing the world.
    As John Paul asserts, man and woman’s call to form a communion of persons “is the deepest substratum of human ethics and culture” (Oct 22, 1980). Thus, the dignity and balance of human life “depend at every moment of history and at every point of geographical longitude and latitude on ‘who’ she will be for him and he for her” (Oct 8, 1980). In short, a culture that does not respect the truth about sexuality is doomed to be a culture that does not respect the truth about life; it’s doomed to be a culture of death.
    This is why John Paul made the theology of the body the first catechetical project of his pontificate. At the heart of the new evangelization, at the heart of building a civilization of love and a culture of life, is marriage and the family. And at the heart of marriage and the family is the truth about the body and sexuality.
    Let us live it and proclaim it. If we do, we will not fall short of renewing the face of the earth!

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