A Pilgrim's Catechism
The Occasional Thoughts of a 21st-Century Roman Catholic on Journey
Towards the Reign of God
Albrecht Dürer: Adam and Eve
What is a human being?
That is the question which one correctly poses today. The Baltimore Catechism instead asked the question: What is Man? To which the answer was: Man is a creature composed of body and soul and made in the image and likeness of God.
The definition, one cannot help but notice, immediately excludes the woman, or rather includes the woman but with and under the broader category of man. The ontological inferiority of woman is decided ahead of time by the very question that is asked.
Thus we see how understanding is an ongoing process. Answers, as final statements, are just not possible. Not only final answers but even final questions.
Luca Signorelli: The Resurrection of the Body (detail)
A creature composed of body and soul?
And so, a human being is a creature . . .
The meaning of creature is clear. Not God. Rather made by God. Therefore finite, limited.
Composed of body and soul. Here things are not clear. We are not in the tradition of Hebrew thought as we find it in scripture but rather in that of Aristotle's Lyceum or Plato's Academy and their successors right up to the medieval scholastics at Paris and Oxford.
When the Hebrew spoke of the human being as spirit it was the person in their totality turned towards God. The person living in the flesh was turned in their totality away from God.
Body and soul in the Hellenistic and scholastic traditions suggest instead two principles or composites which make up the human person.
Neo-Platonism, most influential on early Christian and medieval thought, understood the soul as a spiritual reality somehow imprisoned in matter, the body. The goal was for the soul to free itself from the body and return to God from which the soul had come.
The Manicheans also had influence on early Christian thought particularly through St. Augustine. The Manicheans were intellectual descendants of Zoroaster and were dualists. For them the soul as spirit is good and the body as matter is evil. The soul and body are therefore in conflict as good and evil.
The idea of the body as a prison from which to escape (Neo-Platonists) or as something evil in itself (Manichaeans), against the Hebrew scriptural teaching that material things as created by God are intrinsically good, has plagued Christianity from the outset right up to this day.
St. Thomas Aquinas attempted to but all of this right in his teaching that the spiritual soul is the form (act) of the material body (potency). As such soul and body are two principles (not parts) which make up the complete human person. Thus for Thomas the separation of the soul and the body at death is only temporary until they are reunited at the Last Judgment.
The pilgrim leans towards the teaching of Hebrew scripture and has come to understand the human person in both spiritual and material dimension as standing as a unity before God and being called in every moment to grow in God’s life.
Paul’s teaching of the resurrection of the body means that all that we are, body and soul if you will, is saved and nothing is to be left behind.
Lorenzo Ghiberti: The Creation of Adam and Eve
Made in the image and likeness of God?
The Baltimore Catechism was composed in the scholastic tradition so that here the image and likeness of God has to do with intellect and free will, the ability to reason and choose that philosophically defines humanity. This is the natural human being who then by the sacrifice of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is raised to the supernatural life.
Of course the author of Genesis knew none of this. From him the image and likeness of God has to do with a share in dominion over creation which is given to the first human beings.
The Roman Catholic Church has recently clarified its teaching on limbo which would have had infants born to the life of nature and then only raised to the divine life at baptism. Infants without baptism who died would have gone, not to heaven, but to limbo, a state of natural happiness.
A general consensus of believers, now affirmed by the teaching authority of the Church, has argued that somehow God’s grace is present from the infant’s first moment of existence.
The pilgrim would maintain that what defines humanity is not merely intellect and free will but more significantly the acceptance of a share in God’s own life at the first moment of existence. This would be the case for every human who has ever existed in every time and place. It is the presence of God in our lives that defines us as human beings.
To be made in the image and likeness of God is more than merely sharing in dominion over creature, of having intellect and free will, it means coming into existence already participating in God’s own life and being called constantly to grow in that life.