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Politics and the Human Person

Walker Percy, the acclaimed Southern novelist and Catholic, once said: “In this society, which is post-Christian, post-modern... there is no coherent theory of man.”

By this, Percy meant that the modern understanding of who and what the human person is lacks consistency. Modern man’s understanding—rooted in “a kind of pop scientific idea”—sees the body and the mind as radically divided, rather than unified and working together. “Consequently,” Percy claimed, “the modern man is deranged.” By deranged, Percy did not necessarily mean “insane,” as we might initially assume. Instead, Percy meant something different: modern man is disordered, dis-arranged. 

At the core of Percy’s novels, for which his first—“The Moviegoer”—won the National Book Award, there is always a main character who floats through daily life in an oblivion, as one who hardly understands the meaning of their own existence and that of the world. This is because the character fails to grasp who they were created to be and why.

Percy’s main characters—as well as the supporting characters—lack an “adequate anthropology” as Saint Pope John Paul II called it in The Theology of the Body, a series of Wednesday audiences analyzing the meaning of human sexuality.

By an “adequate anthropology,” JPII was not referencing an understanding of the human person that is a barely sufficient description. Instead, he meant, as one source puts it, “an adequate place to start” for understanding the human person. “Adequate anthropology” also means an understanding that corresponds with who and what the human person truly is. An adequate anthropology provides the foundations for building a deeper and richer understanding of the human person in all of his or her creative dynamics and, of course, in all of his or her shortcomings, failings, and sins.

For JPII, discovering the meaning of our humanity is impossible without recourse to God’s revelation. This is something Percy’s characters—like so many in our modern world—fail to grasp. Relying on our own devices, “pop scientific ideas,” or various forms of media, the modern man gravely misses the mark, ends up disillusioned, and deranged.

Inevitably, this disordered vision of the human person implicates every aspect of life, including politics and the public square. As with every other area of life, good politics is impossible without a proper understanding of the human person.

One need not look very far into the political realities of our day to realize that there is a fundamental and adequate anthropology lacking in our public square. The unborn and the poor are discarded. The sick and the elderly are tossed aside. Human sexuality is conceived of as fluid and malleable. Marriage is redefined to mean everything and, therefore, nothing. Parental freedoms are usurped by the state. The list goes on.

At the root of these false ideas and idols lies a “deranged” notion of freedom, one espoused by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the infamous case Planned Parenthood v. Casey that reaffirmed the so-called right to abortion: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

But such a foundation will never satisfy the human heart.

JPII offers an excellent blueprint for discovering the meaning of our humanity in his encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (“The Redeemer of Man”), a meaning that satisfies the heart. Relying on a statement from the Second Vatican Council that he often quoted, JPII noted that “Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” It is through Christ that the human person discovers “the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity.” Furthermore, it is “only in the mystery of Christ’s Redemption [that] we discover the ‘concrete’ possibilities of man” (Veritatis Splendor [“Splendor of Truth”]). 

In short, it is Christ Who reveals man to himself, as a being with intrinsic dignity and value and specific purpose. Christ alone, Who is Love, can reveal this to the human person. The modern man, then, who lacks an encounter with Love, fails to understand himself, which is why JPII could say that the human person “remains a being that is incomprehensible to himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love.”

This is also why Saint Pope John XXIII could express the following in his opening address for the Second Vatican Council: “[T]he whole of history and of life hinges on the person of Jesus Christ. Either men anchor themselves on Him and His Church, and thus enjoy the blessings of light and joy, right order and peace; or they live their lives apart from Him; many positively oppose Him, and deliberately exclude themselves from the Church. The result can only be confusion in their lives, bitterness in their relations with one another, and the savage threat of war.” 

As Saint Pope Paul VI said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” And, if I might add, if we want either of these, we must understand ourselves in light of the revelation of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! Without Christ’s revelation of the full grandeur of our humanity, our politics is devoid of meaning and, to return to Percy, deranged.

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