Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sentimentality Leads to the Gas Chamber

According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply.

No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will.

The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation.

Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.

Address to Roman Curia, December 21, 2012

Reflection – This is a very tight, careful argument the Pope is making here. It needs to be read carefully and thought through. Essentially, his point is that many things come together into a single reality to maintain our human dignity and make it possible.

The modern idea of human freedom—that it means a rejection of human nature and the capacity to create oneself virtually ex nihilo—actually destroys human freedom. As Leonard Cohen says in his song Closing Time, “It looks like freedom but it feels like death.”

Once human being is not essentially a gift given, it becomes a commodity. If we are all free to make of ourselves whatever we will be, if humanity is nothing but a blank slate on which to cast our ideas and achievements, then the human person as person is something of little account, little value. It is a very short leap from there to talking of ‘lives not worth living,’ of Ubermensch and Untermensch.

It all seems very fine to speak of freedom in these terms. It seems kind and tolerant to say that everyone just gets to make anything whatsoever they want of their lives, and that the essence of happiness and freedom is to do just that. It is sentimental, but sentimentality leads to the gas chamber.

When the fundamental reality of the human person as made in God’s image and likeness, and of God the Creator fashioning us so, is lost, then the door is not just open to a radical devaluing of human life. In fact the door is closed and barred fast against any coherent picture of human dignity and the ineradicable value of the person.

To a large degree Western Civilization has been living off the capital of its Christian theology for some centuries now, while largely rejecting that theology. We seem to think that it is normal and natural for humanity to respect the dignity of persons. But it takes only a little knowledge of history to know that chattel slavery and child murder, tribal warfare and destruction of the weak has been the norm of humanity for most of its history. And it is to that norm we are returning, quickly, as our capital runs out. Not so much a fiscal cliff as a spiritual and moral one.

Our humanity is given to us, and given to us as a gift of being made in God’s image and likeness. Our male-female identity is at the heart of this ‘givenness’, both because we experience nowhere more deeply the determined nature of our humanity, and because it is only in this determined gendered humanity that the capacity to bring forth new human beings lies.
I said a few days ago, with great Chestertonian paradox, that freedom is perfected in slavery—only in committing our lives irrevocably to the other are we truly free. I now say, with equal paradox, that freedom only arises from slavery. It is only in experiencing our humanity as a gift we did not choose and cannot change that we enter into and preserve the dignity and freedom of our own person and that of others.


  1. Father Denis

    Lenoard Cohen also said "the truth unsaid, the blessing gone if I forget my Babylon". There is something deep within all of us, a Babylon, that is given to us to discover. We have to discover it within ourselves before we can truly be free. Gender issues / differences are not something that we can overlook in order to become a good catholic, they are something we must work thru in order to become ourselves, to become holy, perhaps become great saints. Truly, that kind of freedom , and love and support in the journey is what we all are seeking? Yes?

    I read somewhere...I wish I could rememember now that this verse Romans 2:14 is said to be entrance for natural law theory into Christian thought. "Indeed when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law , they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them".

    Yes, sort of a paradox.

    Yes, I agree, we can never be fully free until we can give ourselves - to one another . Another paradox- we can only do this by grace.

    ...Just wanted you to know, I'm trying to stay with you...Bless you.

    1. I absolutely agree with you. I wish I could find time and space to write more of my reflections about all these matters - they take us into very deep waters indeed.
      I do believe we are male or female, and that it is our bodily structures that determine this... but clearly this is only the beginning of the story, not the end of the discussion. What does it all mean? What of the people who find these questions excruciating or their own gender identity conflicted? Not easy, not simple... much prayer and much love is needed all around here.
      God bless you.

  2. I loved you for your beauty
    but that doesn't make a fool of me:
    you were in it for your beauty too
    and I loved you for your body
    there's a voice that sounds like God to me
    declaring, declaring, declaring that your body's really you

    Yeah, talk about your insightful lyrics. Maybe I'm just projecting, but I hear a lot about the failures and evils of sexual libertinism in that song.

    Fr. Denis - I read this blog religiously and every single post is quality, both for the Ratzinger source and for your reflections. The length is excellent and the level of intellectual engagement is excellent. Thank you so much.

    1. Yes... I love Leonard Cohen very much. He comes so close, so very close to the truth of things - a real poet.
      Thanks for the kind words - the blog is a bit of an ongoing miracle, to me at least. Never thought I would find so much to say... yoiks!


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