A recent opinion column on the New York Times website suggested that Pope Francis should compromise on the “issue” of abortion. The sentiments offered reveal a great deal about what passes for serious thought in the modern world – including serious thought by a professor of philosophy (Gary Gutting) at a major Catholic University (Notre Dame). It illustrates much of what I have written in the last several posts about the “Modern Project.”
Professor Gutting states:
Other exceptions to the condemnation of abortion arise once we realize that an early-stage embryo may be biologically human but still lack the main features — consciousness, self-awareness, an interest in the future — that underlie most moral considerations. An organism may be human by purely biological criteria, but still merely potentially human in the full moral sense. As we saw, Marquis’s argument shows that killing a potential human is in itself bad, but there’s no reason to think that we are obliged to preserve the life of a potential human at the price of enormous suffering by actual humans [emphasis added].
Once his premise on the nature of the human is granted, his argument seems entirely reasonable and fair. But note that we are not “actual humans” unless we have consciousness, self-awareness and an interest in the future. By such criteria, my dog is probably a human being. And, of course, the professor is deeply naive in thinking that the Roman Catholic Church shares his definition of humanity. The Classical Christian world (Orthodox and Catholic) has a far more profound understanding of the human person.
I have stated previously that the modern project defines the human as: autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization. As such, we are psychological events. It is an understanding that works, perhaps, in a science fiction movie (Star Trek comes to mind). In such a setting, we can take Spock’s consciousness and place it in an orb, and later put it somewhere else. His body is only important because we have to put his consciousness back into it before the end of the show. But this is nowhere close to a serious philosophical account of human existence.
The teaching of Classical Christianity grounds its understanding of human beings (and of all things) in their ontology, their very being and the nature of their being. God, the “only truly existing God,” brought us into being and with that gives us our humanity. Our personhood is an expression of our being and not its cause.
A human life in the womb is possessed with dignity and worth and its humanity, because it is, and not because of its consciousness, self-awareness and interest in the future. The modern “discount” humanity renders the body to be a mere vehicle, a locus of potentiality, able to be discarded when the “actuality” has been exhausted (or not yet realized). It need not be the cause for suffering or inconvenience for others. This same remove from the body underlies some of the popular thought on sexuality – the body as the vehicle of self-actualization but not itself a center of our being.
To know ourselves as we are created is to enter into human life as gift, not as potential, nor future interest. The deepest and most disturbing part of the modern project and its tendency to redefine and discount our humanity, is that it does so in the name of something other than our humanity. Economic need, pain, psychological distress trump our existence. And in the end, the answer is death. It is the modern project’s alliance with death that is most revealing of its true nature and origin.
May God have mercy and deliver our children from the hands of modern philosophers!
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