Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Helpful Notions For a Personalist Anthropology

Key personalist notions (D. Julio Penacoba)

Preliminary remarks 

This is a course of Theology yet heavily grounded[S1]  on a personalist anthropology, the type that philosopher Wojtyla has brought into the teachings of John Paul II. It is helpful to begin with some discussion of personalist notions especially for those who are familiar with the classical anthropology alone. These notions are presented to see and appreciate the enrichment John Paul II has brought into the theology and recent Church teachings.

Beyond a Classical (Greek) Metaphysical Anthropology

Classical anthropology studies man objectively[S2]  and so it very well reaches the main elements of humanity: the human being is a rational animal, has a spiritual soul, possessing a substantial unity of body and spirit, and has two sets of faculties; spiritual intellect and will and sensibility: internal senses and emotions.

Objective[S3]  anthropology is the basis for "virtue ethics[S4] " which teaches that the integration of the person is the fruit of the exercise of the four cardinal virtues. That is to say, man fulfills himself to the extent that his intellect develops the virtue of prudence. Through prudence, man determines what is due to others in justice (the virtue of the will) and how to submit the two sets of sensitive tendencies to reason through the virtues of temperance and fortitude. This is a fine way to identify what fulfills man in his pursuit of the truth and the good. Certainly, it is better than the raw human goal: “Know and will all you can and want.” Virtue ethics perspective can free man of all the degrading ancient and modern hedonisms: “Enjoy all the pleasure you can.”

However, classical objective anthropology could not study the subjectivity[S5]  of man and was insufficient to explore the richness of the human person in his unique personal identity including sexuality and his existential condition in history, which includes inter-subjectivity in relationships like the family and society. The entire area of sexual and social ethics in the Western culture has been inadequately grounded with respect to the richness and dignity of the human person.

Fortunately, some 20th century philosophers coming from existentialism and using a phenomenological method have made deep explorations into the subjectivity of the person. Their insights are now being systematized under the heading of the person. Their insights are now being systematized under the heading of "personalism." A still better development consists in the Magisterium's having incorporated some of these insights in Gaudium et Spes and in the majority of John Paul II's teachings.  We shall now present some of the notions used by Church documents.



We begin with this synthesized description of the human person taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 357). “Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead."

The human individual possesses the dignity of a person who is not "something" but a "someone." He is capable of self-knowledge, self-possession, freely giving himself, entering into communion with other persons, and he is called to offer his creator a response that no other creature can give in his instead.


This expression does not primarily refer to the self-reflection on my behavior in order to identify my temperament and personality traits, assets, and limitations. It rather refers to the existential fact that a person is immediately aware of himself as the “I” that acts in every human act. Every time I know something or decide on something, I am aware that it is “I” who knows and decides. There is a permanent core of identity in me that is the same ‘acting person” throughout. By self-knowledge, we therefore mean the awareness of self that is revealed as we act humanly. This “self’ thus revealed is the core of the person. It is unique, unrepeatable, and in a sense, totally incommunicable.


This expression does not primarily refer to the control our will exerts over the other faculties and behavior. It rather refers to the existential fact that whatever my
me; I make them to happen. My “self” directs my thinking and deciding; it is their origin. This capacity of the person reveals an original and radical freedom. In a sense, I make myself by setting a goal for myself. This is a more radical freedom than simply choosing among several means towards that goal. In a sense, this radical self-possession makes the person a goal in himself and for himself. Unlike the animals, individuals who exist for the sake of their species and of the bio-system, a person is never a means for the whole. We reach the awesome realization that each person is an end in himself and can never be used ad a means for any other: thing, another person, a social group, the species, projects, ideas and ideologies.

Self-giving to form communion

Like other living beings, man can engage in activities that enrich him. As a person, man has another amazing capacity: "I can engage in relational activities where I can share of my own personal subjectivity to enrich another person. When this self-giving is mutual, we form bonds of communion where all grow more and more as persons. This notion of communion is a key to a personalist anthropology. The term comes from con-munere, the Latin for mutual giving. Personalism discovered that communion is not an option or an accessory to personhood. It is only in self-giving that the person becomes a person; that man can find fulfillment as a person. This cannot be grasped using the metaphysical approach. This idea was missing in the classical anthropology. Certainly, self-giving in love is central to Christianity and for theological anthropology. Unfortunately, Aristotelian anthropology could not reach the centrality of self-giving for personal fulfillment. In the context of a purely philosophical discourse, the entire ethics of sexuality, family, and society could support human dignity only because of the insight of self-giving. In other words, philosophy found its way back to common sense and experience thanks to personalism. As John Paul says: man cannot live without love; his life remains meaningless if he does not experience love, if he is not made part of it and makes it the goal of his life.

Unique relationship with the creator

Through the intellect and will, man has a double unique capacity. With his mind, he can transcend creation and recognize the Creator. With his free will, man can work with creation in submission to the creator. This double capacity sets the human person above the rest of creatures as it involves a unique relationship with the Creator.
CCC 357 speaks also of an additional dignity: Man can be invited by grace to a also form a communion with a personal God. This relation called “covenant.” and is properly speaking found in the realm of supernatural anthropology. In this light, we shall not discuss it in this philosophical introduction.

View of the person

First, at the center of the person we find a given core of unique identity: the self-core. Second, this given core is not static. We see that —like a nuclear reactor— there is human activity that originates and is directed from the self-core. Third, among the activity from the core, we see a capacity of connecting with another self-core and a capacity to form bonds of mutual self-giving. Fourth, we see a unique capacity to relate with the Creator. To all this, we add the awesome content of Christian revelation: a human person can also connect with the Personhood in God in mutual self-giving.

Difference personalism makes for human fulfillment

I can see myself simply as an individual of the human species. Just like the individuals of other species, I can find fulfillment by developing my capacities or potentialities. Since the specific human capacities are "to think" and "to act freely" (intellect and free will), I can think of my fulfillment as an unlimited pursuit "to know all I can and to do all I want."
A realistic development of the principle of self-fulfillment leads to the "ethics of the four cardinal virtues." In this ethics, self-giving in love is not considered essential to personal fulfillment. This shortsightedness is at the root of the individualism and utilitarianism that is characteristic of a Western culture that has gradually lost its Christian roots. Indeed, when charity is discarded as an optional religious principle, the only limitation to individualism is justice: "Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you."
In contrast, through personalism I can explore my subjectivity and see myself with a capacity for self-giving found at the very core of my personhood. This capacity makes me most human to the extent that I develop it by forming communion with other persons. This capacity sets a radical orientation to my other capacities: intellectual and volitive. I will find my personal fulfillment when I use these capacities in pursuit of and at the service of communion.

The human body

For this section, we take CCC n. 365. "The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the "form" of the body, i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature."

The human person is a simultaneously corporeal and spiritual being (362). In man, spirit and matter are not two natures united; rather, their union forms a single nature. (365)

If I were simply an individual of the human species (a rational animal), I would recognize an immaterial “me’ that “has” a material body like other species through my immaterial operations.

Personalism shows that the human person is a unity; hence, the body reveals and expresses the person. It is not only that I “have” a body; more than that, I am a “spiritualized body” or an “incarnate spirit”. In other words, the human body is not an animal body but a personal body. My body shares in my dignity as a person, as a someone and not as a something. This means that my body expresses my personal dignity. We could say that some parts of the body express some aspects of the person more clearly than others. The brain expresses the person in his capacity to know beyond matter. Likewise, human hands express the person in his capacity to dominate and work with the rest of the creatures. In a sense, we could say that the reproductive system expresses the person in his most central capacity —that of giving himself in totality to another person. This seems to be the sense of what Wojtyla calls the “nuptial meaning of the body”. That is why  - as we shall see next - sexuality is not something simply bodily but personal.

Human Sexuality (being male/female)

Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person as a unity of body and soul. It specially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others. (CCC 2332)

If I were simply an individual of the human species, my sexuality would be like in the other species—a merely biological fact with a biological purposes. Just as the digestive system is meant for the preservation of the individual, the sexual system is meant for the preservation of the species. This biological perspective will make my sexuality unnecessary or irrelevant for my human fulfillment.

On the contrary, a personalist view helps me see that my “being make/female” expresses my personhood and affects my whole person. It obviously affects my capacity to contribute to the preservation of the human species (procreation). Most importantly, it affects the central personal capacity of giving myself and of forming a communion. Unlike animal sexuality, the meaning of human sexuality is not primarily for reproduction. It is rather rooted in the deepest personal meaning of love as self-giving. That is why a person who gives himself totally to another or others is fulfilling the meaning of his sexuality even when no genital actions are involved or even when there is “reproductive result" (a child) to speak of as in the case of marriage.

Sexual Shame  (or the fear behind sexual modesty)

Feeling shame for our nakedness in front of others especially before persons of the opposite sex is a universal experience. Animals do not experience this. If animals do not experience this shame, then why should a rational animal? With our mind, we can clearly see the purpose for physical sexual differences and we respect this purpose just as we respect that of the digestive system or of the hands.

Why do only humans experience such shame? What is human about it? Classical anthropology cannot give an answer to these questions. Not even personalism can answer them despite its being able to see in the reproductive system a further “nuptial meaning of the body”. Nonetheless, the phenomenological method can describe this shame as a fear of being used or of using other persons as objects, as a means for something else. We also have evidence that a fracture or an inner rupture exists between our reason and the experience of desires that are contrary to our reason and human dignity. In the last analysis, it is only through faith that we get to know the origin of this inner fracture: it is a consequence of original sin. Personalism certainly sees that this universal experience of shame and inner rupture reveals in a unique way the self-awareness found at the core of personhood. Through this, we possess a direct awareness of what is called the “personalist principle of ethics”: that is to say, that a person is an end in itself and, therefore, s/he must never be used as means.

Man and woman (meaning of the duality)

For this section, we take CCC nos. 383 and 372: "God did not create man a solitary being. From the beginning, "male and female he created them" (Gen 1:27). This partnership of man and woman constitutes the first form of communion between persons." (383). "Man and woman were made "for each other" - not that God left them half-made and incomplete: he created them to be a communion of persons, in which each can be "helpmate" to the other for they are equal as persons ("bone of my bones.") and complementary as masculine and feminine. In marriage, God unites them in such a way that, by forming "one flesh", they can transmit human life: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth."246 By transmitting human life to their descendants, man and woman as spouses and parents cooperate in a unique way in the Creator's work." (372)

 The human person is not a solitary being. The partnership of man and woman constitutes the first form of communion between persons. Man and woman were made  “for each other.” This does not mean that God left them half-made and incomplete. It means that he created them to be a communion of persons in which each can be a “helpmate” to the other on the basis of their equality as persons and on their complementarity as male and female.

Looking at man and woman as mere individuals of complementary sex belonging to the species is insufficient to understand their relationship as persons. Each would seek the other only to find in or use the other in relation to what one does not have. A partnership of mutual use for a common purpose would not demand a lifetime commitment. Again, such shortsighted view of man and woman would be open to comparisons of superiority and competition.

A personalist view sees each man and woman as whole persons which can freely choose to give themselves in their respective complementarity. There is no question of who is superior. Instead, there is a concern for a complementary of personal gifts. Just as each male/female person can choose to give himself/herself to one female/male person inclusive of the engagement of the genital dimension of his/her sexuality, each person can choose to give himself/herself to a group of persons inclusive of the engagement of the affective dimension of its sexuality as male or female alone. In fact, the orientation of man - woman “for each other” is only a primary sigh and incentive to the deepest vocation of man inscribed in his personhood: to give oneself for the life of the others in communion.

Heterosexual marriage for a life time

We start by noting that humans, unlike animals, tend to get married for life. Setting aside particular cases, both cultural anthropology and psychology record the “irrational” tendency of humans to get married for “better or for worse till death.”
Classical anthropology explains this universal phenomenon with difficulty. The idea that partnership ought to be between male and female just as it is among other animals is certainly admissible. The thorny question is this: “Why should marriage be for a lifetime if it could be conveniently arranged to last only for the years needed to raise the children, i.e., not necessarily arranged to last until death?” Also, if marriage is only viewed as a way to ensure healthy offspring, why should not a person have more than one simultaneous partner as long as health is safeguarded?
Personalism — with its central insight of personal fulfillment through self-giving — can give us an answer to these questions. It posits that marriage is the natural way to bring to perfection that central and deepest drive of giving oneself in totality and in the mutuality of communion. Certainly, totality of self includes the totality of one’s existence or lifetime. This would mean that mutual totality of self requires that nothing is left for a third party. Personalism can also explain the not uncommon experience of people who despite not getting married still find self-fulfillment. A person who remains single for selfish reasons or out of fear is in a very different situation from one who, despite remaining single for a variety of reasons, chooses to spend his/her life for the sake of others — in families, wider communities, and for a humanitarian cause. The first type of single person cannot find personal fulfillment whereas the second type can. What is more, the latter can find an even greater fulfillment outside of marriage. 



Human love

Let us begin by noting that the word “love” has many meanings in ordinary usage. We shall limit our discussion of the word to genuine human love understood as that which accounts for loving relationships: spousal, parental, fraternal and friendship.
Aristotelian anthropology – with its lack of recognition for the core of selfhood —considers love as an emotion that is basically identical to animal desire. What is specific of the rational animal is that it experiences a desire for being with another one: that is to say, it desires to be pleased by and to please the other. The most Aristotle discovered was a view of friendship as something that existed among virtuous people, i.e., friendship as the highest kind of desire. Personalist anthropology is in better condition than Aristotelianism to understand human love in general and married love in particular because of its insight of self-giving as the highest fulfillment of the person. We shall now explore human love and married love using a phenomenological approach.
What is common to all forms of loving relationships? Externally, we observe a mutual communication and a giving. If we look at the element of communication, we observe that its content not only includes the discussion of events or ideas but also how the discussant feels about them within his inner self. We call it self-disclosure because it reveals how a person is affected intimately, i.e., at the self-core. If we look at the element of giving, we observe that the recipient of the other’s self-disclosure can understand how the other feels (also called emphathic listening) and is capable of rejoicing or suffering with the other. The recipient in turn acts on the other’s self-disclosure by going out of himself and attending to a perceived need that will increase the joy or lessen the sorrow of the other. We call this self-giving. When this entire process is repeated in the other direction, we have a full mutual loving communication and giving. This mutual exchange is what builds the bond of a loving relationship; it is also built by increasing the experience of communion.

Married love

Among all the kinds of relationship of genuine love, marriage is uniquely distinct. Its main unique trait lies in the fact that  it involves sexual intercourse, something that is missing in parent-children, fraternity or friend relationships. Except in cases of individual abuse and other sexual deviances, we may ask the following question: “Why do all cultures consider sexual intercourse as exclusive to and appropriate for marriage alone?”
As mentioned earlier, Aristotelian anthropology views married love as a special emotion, an instinctual desire that is intended by nature for the reproduction of the species. This could explain why sexual intercourse belongs to marriage alone. Sexual promiscuity and casual sexual would be viewed in contrast as something detrimental to the offspring and eventually to the human species.

Personalist anthropology provides a richer answer. As we shall soon see, it holds that the human body expresses the person and so it recognizes in human sexual intercourse a language of total giving of the whole person. It is common knowledge that the reproductive cells or gametes contain a unique, unrepeatable DNA which constitutes a person’s genetic “ID.” It is a fact that in sexual intercourse, the bodies give and accept their “ID” in a loving embrace, and in so doing, they also open the possibility to form a new “ID.” Personalism recognizes these facts not simply as something purely physiological but rather as personal. We come to the conclusion that fits well with what we observe in any civilization: “Through human sexual intercourse two persons mutually accept and give themselves in openness to accept a new person to whom they will give themselves in parental self-giving love.”

In this light, we understand married love – in its uniqueness – as the primary albeit not the only one way to carry out the mutual self-giving that fulfills persons. Married love is not an emotion but a decision to give one’s self and to accept the other in the totality of un-conditionality – “for better or for worse”— and in the totality of their existence – “till death do part us.”

Falling in love

Another very interesting theme is the personalist analysis of “falling in love.” This again is another universal experience. Sometime or another in a person’s life, s/he may experience a quite powerful drive to share his/her life totally with another person. This drive is based on a “non-rational certainty” of the idea that the person becomes happy with life sharing. The equation implied here is this: A person thinks that all that is needed for him or her to be happy is that male and female share their lives totally.  Aristotelian anthropology sees this equation to be a trick of the species to simply ensure its preservation but it cannot per se be taken seriously or permanently. This is so because our rational selves do not easily decide to take on all the responsibilities and risks of unconditional commitment.

Personalist anthropology can see deeper and farther. It easily recognizes the deepest drive to find fulfillment in the mutual and total self-giving of married love. It also recognizes the “difference” and “distance” between falling in love and married love. The former is a drive loaded with emotion characterized by its turbulent ups and downs and can even wane through a lifetime. On the contrary, married love is a conscious decision that only begins at the wedding but lasts – and it should - for a lifetime. This radically differentiates married life from falling in love. The distance between these two realities lies in the fact that the drive to find fulfillment may happen between two persons who actually cannot make the decision that married love requires. They either cannot decide at the moment (for reasons of age, physical distance, and psychological or financial incapacity to take on responsibilities) or cannot decide at all (for reasons of a decision made by one or both persons favoring a third person, belonging to the same sex, so on and so forth).

This leads us to a better understanding of an interesting ethical consequence: no matter how much persons are in love, fornication or premarital sex is always degrading of persons. As we have seen, sexual intercourse expresses the total self-giving that is already exists since this is what married love is all about. In contrast, falling in love is not an existing fact of total self-giving but a drive towards it. To engage in what expresses the fact when it is the fact is non-existent yet is an anthropological deception that degrades the greatest capacity of the person. To yield to this deception damages the person intrinsically; what is more, we observe that not uncommonly, the female person suffers a more permanent damage than the male and the possible offspring certainly is damaged for life. No matter how much a person claims to be in love, no person – in the name of being in love - has the right to degrade himself and to risk causing permanent damage to another person.

Conclusion: Making ready for a personalist theology

It is possible to do theology using personalism as shown by John Paul II himself. He did this in the series of speeches made to Wednesday general audiences he held and which are now compiled in the book “Theology of the Body.” In each of the book’s four parts, the Pope begins with Scriptural texts – the beginning of theological method — and then proceeds with a unique exegetical way. This way consists in analyzing the scriptural texts in circles of deeper comprehension and in constantly going back to two dimensions of human experience: intellectual cognition and the inner experience in consciousness. This typical method of phenomenology yields amazing insights about and in the subjectivity and inter-subjectivity of the human person. John Paul II does not simply engage in exegesis but does good theology in so far as he relates revealed truths about God and Christ with anthropology. He does this in reference to the rich tradition of the Church and to Vatican II documents. A summary of this “personalist theologizing” is gleaned in no. 7 of Mulieris Dignitatem, a recommended obligatory reading for the course. This specific magisterial text connects the Man-Woman course with the present overview of some personalist notions.

The insightful summary Weigel makes of the Pope’s Theology of the Body is recommended as a very useful reading reference. The summary is amazing not only because it reduces the Pope’s rich insights in ten pages; most meritoriously, it “translates” the Popes teaching into a language that is accessible to an average college graduate. Weigel likens the Pope’s teachings summarily presented with a time bomb and even prophesizes with good bases that it will explode sometime within the third millennium as it eventually reaches the majority of the population in the Western culture.

* Peñacoba, J. pro manuscript (Manila: December 2003)

 [S1]Theology isn’t grounded on personalist anthropology.  It must be grounded on the Revelation of the Person of Jesus Christ. Personalist anthropology is developed within theology.

 [S2]More accurately, classical anthropology is objectivist as “reductive” and abstract. It is less realist that the anthropology of the subject.

 [S3]I would use the world “objectivized.” The real problem with a reductive metaphysics is the primacy that is awarded to “substance.” “Substance” is not the way things are, but the way we conceptualize them. Substance is most literally a category of the mind with which we award reality to an experience.

 [S4]I like the avoidance of “virtue ethics” because it presupposes a substantialist anthropology. Virtues as “accidents” of substance. In reality, it is the ontological “I” that increases its ontological density as the gift of self takes place. Humility is the key virtue because it is not a virtue at all, but the very being of the “I” as gift. That’s why it is so amusing to be “proud” of achieving humility. We laugh because it is such an inadequate anthropology and account of authenticity.

 [S5]I have to stop here, but the key to the whole realist undertaking is to understand that there are two levels of experience: that of the external senses, and that of the “I” in the exercise of self-transcendence. The first is abstracted and abstractive; the second is the direct experience of the self. There is no mediation of sensible perception, nor concept. It is a direct existential experience of “being” as “I” – gift.  As Wojtyla develops in “Subjectivity and the Irreducible in the Human Person,” both levels of experience must be deployed for a holistic understanding of the human person.
   But this is primarily the work of faith. Faith is the anthropological act of self-gift as reception of the Revealing Person of Christ. Only when the self is activated as self-transcending do the “lights go on” as personal transfiguration. The reasoning “I”  “sees” this and perceives the self as absolute being. Without it, reason is reductive and positivist. Thus, without faith, reason cannot be reason. Therefore, “subjectivity” must be ontologically reclaimed.

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