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John F. KavanaughApril 30, 2012

We humans have bodies. We also are bodies. That is the profound reality of embodiment, of being personal bodies. It is also our most personal challenge. If we are ever able to accept who and what we are, we have to accept the rich but often ambiguous paradoxes of being body-persons.

We experience our bodies as limits, but at the same time they are opportunities to be real and engaged in the world. Our bodies are our self-revelation to the world; but they often conceal our full reality. We can experience them as objects of study and we can discipline them when we learn to walk or dance or play a musical instrument. At the same time they are glorious revelations of our self-knowledge, in art and science, or in a beautiful union of the physical and spiritual when we become the music we play or the athletic moves we master. Our bodies humble us in their creaturely dependency, and they are our glory when they reveal our transcendence.

The ambiguities of being embodied persons have led some people over the ages to propose a deceptively simpler account of what we are. Why not be one or the other: either a mere body, a thing or a vaunted mental self freed from our humble physicality? Maybe we are just animals or even machines. On the other hand, maybe we are just minds or brains. But both options split us in half and turn one part of us against another. Both require a depersonalization of our bodies.

Such is the world of alienated human bodies. They are things set apart from our personal being.

Concretely, we can see how this occurs in human sexuality. In its most extreme form, alienated, depersonalized sex is at the rotten core of rape— literally turning others into mere things, robbing them of their personal meaning. Sadism and masochism are mirror images of sexual alienation. Lesser forms of depersonalized sex are pornography or fetish-ism—sexual engagement with things—and the body as commodity, obvious in prostitution. One may also wonder whether the repression of feeling, commitment and deepest personal longings is emblematic of the casual “hooking up” culture.

More generally, the ideology of alienation from our bodies touches upon our very identity as human persons. In early 2012, the Journal of Medical Ethics shocked many of its readers by publishing an article asserting that newborn babies are no more persons than fetuses are. Its “medical ethicist” authors, while admitting that neonates are genetically human, hold that such humans are not subjects “of a moral right to life” because they lack the properties of persons who can view their own existence as having value. They coin the term “after-birth abortion” for the killing of such depersoned human bodies, since there is no damage to their personal interests.

Our estrangement from our very bodies, our humble origins and helpless dependency upon others is paralleled by the increasingly fashionable claim that a person can be dead even though that person’s body is alive. A number of ethicists over the past decades have followed in the steps of philosophers like Peter Singer and Mary Ann Warren, who have argued that helpless and dependent men and women, deprived of their “higher” brain functions, are no longer members of our privileged caste of persons.

As Walter Glannon writes in Biomedical Ethics: “If persons are defined essentially in terms of the capacity for consciousness, then a person dies when the region of the brain that generates and sustains this capacity permanently ceases to function. Perhaps we should say there are two definitions of death; one for persons and one for human organisms.”

Of course, if newborns and the mentally incapacitated are excluded, like the unborn, from the family of human persons, we may do with them anything we want. But the ultimate price will be paid not only by our wounded and vulnerable brothers and sisters.

There are terrible possibilities facing us in this new century, from endless war to economic collapse and civil disorder; but perhaps the most terrible is the most subtle. If we succumb to the temptation to divest ourselves of our bodied condition for the sake of some alienating dream of autonomous and disembodied minds, we may indeed achieve the twisted desire. But if we do, it will be at the cost of our very selves.

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10 years 11 months ago
Thank you so much for writing this piece, Fr. Kavanaugh. Just the perfect topic to talk about and reflect on these days. The current culture seems to only glorify the body which leads to all kinds of dysfunction (in sex, food, human relationships, etc.) Then there are pockets here and there that only stress the importance and power of the mind divorced from any consideration of ethics and lastly those who only walk around preaching spirituality and forgetting that we are still here and need to pay our bills. So how do we balance all three of our make up , i,e, body, mind and spirit, so that we can live as authentic human beings, as God created us?
Michael Barberi
10 years 11 months ago
Thank you Fr. Kavanaugh for this important article. I do agree with much of what you say. However, this issue points to pholosophical, theological and anthropological principles and arguments that can be distorted and exaggerated. 

The Church argues:
>We are a unity of body and spirit and are made in the image of God. Using symbolism: As the body and spirit are one and inseparable, Christ and his love for His Church are one and inseparable; as the love between the spouses are one and inseparable, so are the unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act are one and inseparated. 
> An adequate philosophical anthropology of body-spiritual unity implies that are lower bodily powers, which are a source of personal integration if they are not modified by right reason, must be integrated through virtue into the subjectiviity of the acting person....that is, only through chastity-temperance is the body integrated through mastery of right reason and will, can it be said to actually speak of the language of temperance. 
> The habitual integration of the body-spirit unity "requires" the body to be treated as subject under the powers of the higher powers of reason and will. 
> Thus, the virtuous approach to fertility regulation is NFP-Periodic Continence. This leads to the virtuous integration of sexual inclinations and fertility. On the other hand, the sexual inclinations, before virtuous integration, is ordered to its own gratification....and is disintegrative of the person.
> Contraception treats the body, not as subject, but as an object to be manipulated. Contraception is a violation of the virture of chastity-temperance, because the choice of contraception makes the choice of this virtue superfluous. Contraception does not master the sexual appetite through reason and will. 

The entire body-spirit theology is also grounded in the speculation that God's procreative plan is revealed to us in the language of the body, in its fertility-infertility nexus. Spouses respect and collaborate with God's procreative plan when they follow the natural rhythms of the body. Abstinence during fertile times and the restriction of sexual intercourse to infertile times is God's procreative plan for spouses who for good reasons do no want more children. Thus, the virtue of chastity-temperance is the only licit means of birth control.

It is hard to imagine that NFP-PC are not acts of manipulation, as is contraception. It is also hard to imagine that NFP-PC masters the sexual appetite. It does not master illicit thoughts, excessive sex or unnatural sex. It certainly does not give justice to female spouses who are at the height of her sexual appetite during fertile times. It withholds sex during these heightened times of appetite, as an act of heroic virtue. 

If God's procreative plan is NFP-PC, why did he wait until the 1930s to reveal it to us? Why did it take another 20 years for God to tell Pius XII in 1951 that NFP-PC was a licit and permissible form of birth regulation?

History has shown us, in particular Augustine, that the body and the world cannot be trusted. The sins of the flesh and the ills of the secular world must be avoided. The Church is at war with modernity and the sins of the flesh without remainder.

Unfortunately, the world is a perfect place. God is perfect and for God not to make the world the best of all worlds for his children, is for God to act against his nature. What we fail to see is the good in the world and the good in the flesh or body. The Church excessively focus on evil. When we do this we implicitly and explicity demonstrate that there is a war between the body and spirit. This is a contradiction because we are a unity of body and spirit. We are not focusing on the good but exaggerating the evil to the point that the Church's theology on marriage and procreation is distorted reason and existentially unrealistic.

What is needed is a balanced theology of body-spirit unity based on prudence and charity.

mike giffin
10 years 11 months ago
Barberi's cogent comments led me back to a different Pope, and his thoughts on the earth's perfection in An Essay On Man (1732/34), "one truth is clear, what ever is, is right".
C Walter Mattingly
10 years 11 months ago
While Michael makes some perceptive comments regarding the Church's position on birth control and the marriage bond, they seem tangential to the point of Father Cavanaugh's essay, which is the gradual raising of the performance bar that qualifies them for personhood not only for the unborn but also the newborn. Apparently the Journal of Medical Ethics has seen fit to publish an article which argues that the newborn child has no more right to life than the fetus, joining Peter Singer in preparing the soil for his proposal that new mothers have a 30 day look-see grace period during which they are free to nurture their child or toss him/her back. Sort of like the 30-day satisfaction guarantee a car maker recently offered to new purchasers of its vehicles.
It is interesting to note that one of the attractions of the early Church to the women who were so important to its growth was the refusal of the early Fathers to allow abortion and infanticide so common to the pagan world of the time.  Singer's line of thought may very well have influenced then-Senator Obama when he was accused of opposing a law requiring doctors to provide medical care to viable survivors of late term abortion attempts.
Is this where the nation is headed? From abortion to infanticide? From infanticide to declaring the Downs' Syndrome or otherwise mentally impaired as not persons because they, by the judgement of others, do not or are unable to hold their own existence as having value? That they flunk the sort of personhood performance test that has much in common with that of Margaret Sanger and the Third Reich? 
10 years 11 months ago
Thank you, Norma.

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