In Centesimus Annus (1991), Pope St. John Paul II writes that atheism is one of today’s causes for misunderstanding the human person. “If we then inquire as to the source of this mistaken concept of the nature of the person and the ‘subjectivity’ of society, we must reply that its first cause is atheism” (13). This may at first seem to be an odd connection. How can atheism—the belief that God does not exist—be the cause of our modern misunderstanding of the human person and the dignity of his or her life? To answer this question, we must place it within the context of John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. Most Catholics are aware of the beauty and sanctity of life, from conception to natural death, regardless of the mental or physical condition of the particular person. Yet John Paul II’s encyclical gives important theological explanations for the goodness of life, and reflecting on these will help us to discover the connection between the absence of God and modernity’s degradation of the human person.
What are the “deepest roots” (EV 21) of the clash between what John Paul II calls the “culture of life” and the “culture of death?” He writes, “We have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism, which, within its ubiquitous tentacles, succeeds at times in putting Christian communities to the test” (Ibid). Thus, because man no longer has respect for God, he likewise disregards the dignity of other men; this abandonment of God comes from the secular nature of the culture, which emphasizes the importance of the material over the spiritual (more on that below). Thus, John Paul II speaks of this “sad vicious circle: when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life” (Ibid). Why is this true? Fundamentally, man is created in the image and likeness of God, as we read in the Scriptures: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). If man is created in God’s image, it follows that he mirrors His image and, in a certain sense, is “stamped” with the reflection of God. Furthermore, there is a great dignity in being created in God’s image, as we hear in the Psalmist’s wonderment: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:4-5). And again, in the Wisdom of Solomon, “For God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity” (2:23). Therefore, if man is created after God’s image, this means that he is rejecting both his human and divine origin when he rejects God. God is the author, origin, and sustainer of all life, and if He is cast aside, then man will no longer be able to respect the life that comes from Him. Indeed, as John Paul II explains, “By living ‘as if God did not exist,’ man not only loses sight of the mystery of God, but also of the mystery of the world and the mystery of his own being” (EV 22).
Our next question is this: what happens in society when our understanding of God (and thereby man) is lost? John Paul II writes that the “eclipse of the sense of God and of man inevitably leads to a practical materialism” (EV 23). This materialism emphasizes the importance of quantifiable and empirical data l over anything spiritual. John Paul II explains it perfectly: “The values of being are replaced by those of having” (Ibid). Rather than caring about the spiritual nature of man, all that matters is the “pursuit of one’s own material well-being” (23). We have arrived at the definition of the goodness of life in secular and modern terms. Life is good only insofar as it has material value or worth. If you are wealthy and have a large house, then your life is good. If your body is perfect and athletic, then your life is good. If, however, you have some defect—if you are poor or have a disability, for example—then your life is not good; you cannot have “material” success as defined by the world.
John Paul II discusses the problematic attitudes that arise from this materialistic understanding of life. He explains, “In such a context suffering, an inescapable burden of human existence but also a factor of possible personal growth, is ‘censored,’ rejected as useless, indeed opposed as an evil, always and in every way to be avoided” (EV 23). This rejection of suffering is indeed a trait of the modern world and its inability to suffer. However, the materialistic mindset almost prescribes that any form of suffering is a contradiction to a “good life.” Suffering means that there is pain, which is contrary to the pleasure given by material goods. Therefore, everything is done to get rid of suffering, to the point that the elderly and disabled are seen as “burdens” and living “below average” lives. Even though suffering is inescapable, as John Paul II explains, modern man tries to do everything to avoid it and disregard its significance.
Second, this materialistic understanding of life leads to a skewed understanding of the body. While modernity seems to be enthralled by the body, this enchantment is strictly at the level of physical appearance. Thus, “the body is no longer perceived as a properly personal reality, a sign and place of relations with others, with God and with the world. It is reduced to pure materiality” (Ibid). Unlike the descriptions of the body from the Scriptures quoted above, there remains little reverence for its spiritual signifiance, for “it is simply a complex of organs, functions, and energies to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency” (Ibid). The body has now become a machine that is meant for the purposes of pleasure, which also shows why suffering is not valued.
If the body is no longer respected, then sexuality and procreation follow with that, as John Paul II goes on to explain. Rather than “being the sign, place, and language of love…it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument of self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts” (Ibid). Because the self-gift of God is written into man’s nature, we see the result of rejecting Him: His creation is no longer valued for its original intention. The human body, which was originally designed for love, is now used for the selfish and individualistic purposes of pleasure. If this is the case, then “procreation becomes the ‘enemy’ to be avoided in sexual activity” (Ibid). Contraception and abortion thus become valid means of ending life, because there cannot be “consequences” from the act of pleasure. Just as Cain, who forgot the worship he owed to God, justified the murder of his brother Abel, so too do we, when we forget God, rationalize the need to take innocent life for the sake of our pleasure.
Nevertheless, as discussed in the beginning, John Paul II’s intention is to show that man’s life is not only good because of its material value, even though his body is indeed a good. Man’s life has value because of its relationship to God and its eternal end of Heaven. John Paul II affirms, “Life is always a good” (EV 34). He then asks our very question, “Why is life a good?” (Ibid). He responds: Life is “a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory…Man has been given a sublime dignity, based on the intimate bond which unites him to his Creator: in man there shines forth a reflection of God himself” (Ibid). Thus, the goodness of man’s life does not merely come from his material existence, but from the dignity given to him by God. For this reason, “the life which the Son of God came to give to human beings cannot be reduced to mere existence in time” (EV 37). Therefore, not even suffering determines the goodness or lack thereof in man’s life, for even that is meant to bring him into closer union with God. In John Paul II’s estimation, to bring modern man to respect human dignity once again, we must first bring him back to understanding the goodness of God, for the two of these are intimately connected. Thus, man ought to return to the following words from Scripture: “For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13:5).