Natural Law

The Embodied Person as Gift and the Cultural Task in America: Status Quaestionis

David L. Schindler

“We are not our own. . . . Belonging to ourselves at its root is always anteriorly a belonging to God and to others, to the entire community of being.”

The body in its physical structure as such bears a vision of reality: it is an anticipatory sign, and already an expression, of the order of love or gift that most deeply characterizes the meaning of the person and indeed, via an adequately conceived analogy, the meaning of all creaturely being. This is the burden of John Paul II’s seeing in the body a theology, which indeed implies an anthropology or, better, a metaphysics rooted in the personal.1

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his God and the World, says that

man is constructed from within, in the image of God, to be loved and to love . . . . In the Trinity, Love’s own essence portrays itself. Man is in God’s image and thereby he is a being whose innermost dynamic is likewise directed toward the receiving and giving of love.2

Elsewhere Ratzinger, referring to the scholastic understanding of conscience in terms of the two levels indicated in “synderesis” and “conscientia,” suggests that synderesis be replaced with the Platonic concept of anamnesis (recollection), which, he says, “harmonizes with the key motifs of biblical thought and the anthropology derived from it.”3 He says this term “should be taken to mean exactly that which Paul expressed in . . . his letter to the Romans” regarding the law written on the hearts of the Gentiles and on their conscience that also bears witness (31). Ratzinger says that the same idea is also “strikingly amplified in the great monastic rule of Saint Basil. Here we read: ‘The love of God is not founded on a discipline imposed on us from outside, but is constitutively established in us as the capacity and necessity of our rational nature’” (31).

Ratzinger goes on:

This means that the first so-called ontological level of the phenomenon of conscience consists in the fact that something like an original memory of the good and true (they are identical) has been implanted in us, that there is an inner ontological tendency within man, who is created in the likeness of God, toward the divine . . . . This anamnesis of the origin, which results from the god-like constitution of our being, is not a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents. It is, so to speak, an inner sense, a capacity to recall, so that the one whom it addresses, if he is not turned in on himself, hears its echo from within (32).

And this suggests the ground for mission:

The possibility for and right to mission rest on this anamnesis of the Creator, which is identical to the ground of our existence. The gospel may, indeed must, be proclaimed to the pagans, because they themselves are yearning for it in the hidden recesses of their souls (see Isaiah 42:4) . . . . 
In this sense Paul can say that the gentiles are a law to themselves—not in the sense of the modern liberal notions of autonomy, which preclude transcendence of the subject, but in the much deeper sense that nothing belongs less to me than I myself. My own “I” is the site of the profoundest surpassing of self and contact with him from whom I came and toward whom I am going (32–33).

Ratzinger says that Paul’s proclamation thus “encountered an antecedent basic knowledge of the essential components of God’s will, which came to be written down in the commandments, which can be found in all cultures, and which can be all the more clearly elucidated the less an overbearing cultural bias distorts this primordial knowledge” (33).

My presentation first (I–VI) shows the sense in which this love and anamnesis of God is reflected in the embodied person and implies a metaphysical anthropology of being as gift. It then (VII) considers a different interpretation of the relational logic carried in this anthropology of being as gift, and (VIII) concludes by reflecting on the nature of the Church’s cultural mission to America, in light of the anthropology of being as gift.


First principle. The soul is “the principle of unity of the human being, whereby it exists as a whole—corpore et anima unus—as a person” (Veritatis splendor, 48). “It is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his . . . acts” (VS, 48). “The human person cannot be reduced to a freedom which is self-designing, but entails a particular spiritual and bodily structure” (VS, 48).

These statements, first of all, affirm the unity of the human being as a dual, or differentiated, unity of body and soul.

But, secondly, in light of the teaching of St. Thomas (following Aristotle), this unity, rightly understood, presupposes the primacy of the soul within the mutual relation of body and soul. The soul gives the body its first meaning as a body, although, given the unity of soul and body, the causal relationship between them is always mutually internal, albeit asymmetrical.4

The body accordingly is never, after the manner of Descartes, simply physicalist “stuff” that somehow has its own “organization” prior to and independent of the order provided by the soul.Thus the body, in its very bodiliness, can participate in the imago Dei. The body in its distinctness as a body indicates a new way of being in the world, a distinct way of imaging God and love.6

In sum: the soul as it were lends its spiritual meaning to the body as body, even as the body simultaneously contributes to what now becomes, in man, a distinct kind of spirit: a spirit whose nature it is to be embodied.7

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