During the morning portion of the recently concluded 2021 Bishops’ Pro-Life Conference, attendees delved deeply into important truths about the identity of the human person and the deeply consequential errors that deny them.
As Western culture and law distances itself from those truths—a reality that becomes more apparent with each passing year—it becomes more and more important for Catholics and others of good will to recall, understand, and bear witness to them.
The first of these truths is that each human person is individually created by God and remains in existence at every moment only because God wills it.
Christians take this “createdness” for granted because it is so elementary to our faith, but important things follow from it. Being personally created in God’s image and likeness means that each of us is willed, loved, and has been given a dignity and identity as God’s own son or daughter. The majesty of this divine gift is difficult to overstate.
The second of these truths follows from the first. Our createdness is for a purpose, which is also a gift. We are destined for eternal life. And being created as an individual in a unique time and place has meaning for this earthly life as well—God has some specific work, however small in the eyes of the world, for each of us to do.
Human beings, then, have a given identity and purpose. But we have not yet spoken of another aspect of our createdness—the gift of the body.
We are not creatures possessing only will and intelligence. We have a material body, and our “embodiedness” has meaning. Pope St. John Paul II has reminded us that the body “expresses the self.” The self expressed by the body is sexed—male or female—and it is also particular in various ways to each person. Our “personalities” and our emotions are all expressed by the body—humor, affection, anger, surprise, pleasure, and discomfort. The body, which is beautiful, is inseparable from the given nature of the person.
God has even arranged that we are to come into existence through the bodies of two other persons—our mother and father. This also says something about who we are. Our origin is in God, but with cooperation from two other human persons, from whom we inherit our bodily self. Our existence is therefore in a way contigent upon our parents, too, as well as upon God.
We are dependent in other ways. Our relationships with other human beings are part of what makes for a rich life, and we often need the help of others even for our survival. And of course we are dependent on creation itself for food, water, and air, which preserve the life of the body.
In sum: our existence is pure gift, for which we owe gratitude. We are made in God’s image, therefore bearing great dignity, and are destined for unity with Him, which is in our power to accept. We are a unity of body and soul, neither of which is accidental. We are individual persons, but we are also radically dependent at every moment on God, others, and creation, and we have duties to all of them. We know who we are and where we ought to be going.
Contrast this vision of the human person with the one that dominates and paralyzes us in the present moment: each of us is autonomous and independent; identity and purpose are self-created, self-defined, alterable, and reversible; the body is not a gift, but a mere implement or appendage, which may be manipulated or even destroyed to achieve the purposes of the will.
This vision of the person also has consequences: those who ascribe to it bear a terrible burden of constant self-creation. Convinced we can be whatever and whomever we want, we find it difficult to escape existential crisis for more than a few months or years. We question whether our bodies line up with our “real” selves, and we wonder the same about our children. Children, in fact, may be an obstacle to our self-actualization, and so we convince ourselves that we may destroy them before they begin to make demands of us. Any obstacle to our will, including our own body, is a violence against our selves; for if we cannot achieve it, our entire self-created purpose and identity is denied.
This is the heavy load borne by the dispossessed youth of our time. They are aching for true purpose, peace, and a sense of permanence and security in their own identity. It cannot be grasped at—it may only be received as a gift. God grant us the grace, first to receive it, and then to show others the way to Him who gives rest.