Catholic Anthropology, Truth, Love, and Medical Ethics

Oct 4, 2022

The below article was first delivered by Dr. Peter J. Colosi as remarks for the inaugural session of St. Bernard's Graduate Certificate in Catholic Bioethics on August 30th, 2022. More details on this graduate certificate can be found here.


Part 1: A Catholic Anthropology: Human Persons as Bodily-Spiritual Realities

Earlier this month, we celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That Feast, that reality, is the perfect expression of a Catholic anthropology, and it can pertain quite directly to medical ethics from a Catholic perspective.

Many ancient world views and thinkers, chief among them Socrates, held the view that the soul would live forever, but that the body was like a cage for the soul that would be shed after death never to be seen again – good riddance, they thought!

Mary’s Assumption, body and soul, into heaven teaches us the deep goodness of our bodies as integral to the persons we are. The opening lines of Scripture reveal to us the goodness of the material world and the goodness of our embodied personhood, to use a more recent term. After each day God creates, the Book of Genesis tells us that God saw that what He created was good and then on the sixth day, after creating man and woman, Scripture tells us He saw that this was very good.

Due to the Fall, we now must undergo suffering/pain, sickness and death – and the definition of death is that moment when the spiritual soul leaves the body, and the body becomes a lifeless corpse[1]; on that point, namely, the definition of the moment of death, those ancients did see the truth. However, death, and the sickness that precedes it, was not part of God’s original plan for human beings,[2] for unlike angels, we are composed of body and soul – this is our essence, it is deeply good, and it is the beautiful way God made us differently than He made the angels, who have no body.[3] “Your body is you!” … in a very real way as John Paul II said numerous times in his Theology of the Body.[4] By the phrase “the human person is a body,” John Paul II did not mean to reduce human beings to matter alone, but rather to emphasize the profound intimacy of the spiritual-bodily union that we persons are.

Our very nature as embodied persons is the foundation for the Catholic belief in the resurrection from the dead, by which is meant the resurrection of our bodies, which undergo corruption after death, but will be restored in a glorified form and reunited with our separated soul at the resurrection.[5] Almost all human beings have a long time to wait for that reunification of their body back together with their soul – exceptions to that waiting time are: Jesus, the Second Divine Person of the Holy Trinity already reunited with His human body, and the human persons Mary, Elijah, and some say St. Joseph[6] – who live now as embodied persons in heaven.

How does all of this relate to medical ethics from a Catholic perspective? The first point is that our dignity as human persons resides in our whole body-soul unity. When that unity is present, that is, when we are alive, no dignity is lost, no matter how ill or otherwise physically or cognitively diminished the person is: the unrepeatable, precious person whom you love is still there, fully, even if they cannot communicate, and their very being is calling for the reverence and love we owe to all persons.[7] The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect.”[8] The Catechism says this primarily because when we are sick we are particularly in need of care and love because of our vulnerability; it also says this because the healthy can be tempted to think that the sick have lost their worth and dignity. The Catechism reminds us that they have not and calls us to relationship.[9]

A second connection of our embodiment to medical ethics, as St. John Paul II has pointed out, is that our human bodies are different in kind from animal bodies; for, our bodies are included in the “image and likeness of God” that we are,[10] an image and likeness that animals, though wonderful beings, do not participate in. St. Bonaventure would say that animals are vestiges, not images, of God’s glory.[11] We do not have time here to delve into all of the reasons why human bodies transcend animal bodies, but for John Paul II this is especially expressed in the idea that in and through the body, persons can participate in “self-gift.”

In his works Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body, John Paul II expounds upon the spousal meaning of the body;[12] namely, that persons are enabled by their embodiment to make a gift of themselves to each other. In the realm of sexuality we can see this in contrast to the animals in that while sexuality in the animal world serves only one purpose – reproduction –, in the world of human sexuality there are two purposes or meanings: procreation and union. And so, in addition to human procreation, in which God creates an immortal soul in the new baby, human sexuality also mutually expresses, fulfills, and deepens the love between the spouses, and these two meanings are intimately united: John Paul II says that the baby is the embodiment of the love of the parents.[13] The unitive aspect is completely lacking in the animal world of sexuality.[14] It is not only in marital union that human persons can make a gift of themselves to each other in and through their embodiment; there are also verbal expressions, hand holding, hugs and embraces, and the looks of understanding and love we give to and receive from each other.

One of the most important Magisterial documents on bioethics, Donum Vitae, encapsulates the overall point this way:

By virtue of its substantial union with a spiritual soul, the human body cannot be considered as a mere complex of tissues, organs, and functions, nor can it be evaluated in the same way as the body of animals; rather it is a constitutive part of the person who manifests and expresses himself through it.[15]

That is a very brief introductory expression of a Catholic approach to philosophical-theological anthropology and the dignity of human persons that flows from their very being. Let us now turn to the relationship between truth and love in medical ethics.


Part 2: The Relationship between Truth and Love in Medical Ethics

In many documents, the Church comments on the vocation of medicine and caring for the sick: Salvifici Doloris (1984) by Pope John Paul II, Deus Caritas Est (2005) by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Samaritanus Bonus (2022), a CDF document approved in audience with Pope Francis and published just this year. These are three examples which form a beautiful tryptic on the Christian meaning of suffering and love. In them the Church emphasizes three overarching points with respect to Catholic clinicians and all who care for the sick: first, they should have top-notch training and be dedicated to refining their skills; second, they should be knowledgeable about Church teaching on medical ethics; and, third, they should be able to give to patients more than just what their technical training enables them to give, in the words of Deus Caritas Est, they should be able to give them “the look of love which they crave.”[16] They should love their patients.

There has always been a tension, if you will, between truth and love in the human mind, but the Church says over and over that truth and love cannot contradict each other. In fact, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote an entire encyclical on this point entitled Caritas in Veritate, Charity in Truth, in which he beautifully explained[17] that love and knowledge not only cannot contradict each other, but that they are insufficient without each other and mutually enrich each other. We might think of the famous opening line of Fides et Ratio which taught us that “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” The same holds true for love and reason.

A medical ethical example of an area where the seeming conflict between love and truth arises is in debates about euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. The truth is that those are intrinsically immoral and should never be legalized or practiced. Yet, the love we have for those who suffer makes us yearn to relieve that suffering. That yearning to relieve the suffering of loved ones is a good yearning, but to accomplish that goal by killing or participating in the killing of a suffering person only seems like a fulfillment of that love, but is objectively the opposite of love; to kill a person in order to relieve their suffering is an abandonment of the vulnerable person. But how do we make this clear to the wider public? Well, to develop that will be one of the main purposes of the course in the spring 2023 semester, Catholic Bioethics at the End of Life.

But for now we can say that in a Catholic approach, we would want to carefully study and make second nature the specific Catholic teachings on euthanasia vs. proper end of life care – which will also be our task in the spring – and we also want to understand the reasons for the truth of those teachings so deeply that we can see their inner goodness and their connection to human happiness, meaningful relationships, and the common good. To gain this deeper understanding requires delving into these three areas: first, philosophical and theological anthropology and the communion of persons that flows from that anthropology;[18] second, the meaning of a Catholic ethos[19] that can imbue Catholic medical schools, hospitals, and other health care settings; and third, the ultimate meaning of life in an eternal perspective. Only in this way can the faithful be inspired to live according to the specific moral teachings in a full way, especially when that involves sacrifice – in fact, only when the link between truth and love becomes clear via understanding, can the pain of sacrifice begin to be experienced also as a joy.

It seems to me that the purpose of a program like the one we are inaugurating tonight would be to strive to bring about that union of truth and love. We do not need to be afraid that when we emphasize love we will have to water down moral truth - that is not true. In a careful analysis, bringing in love deepens and confirms the truths we have received in the Deposit of Faith given to us via the Magisterium. In those very Magisterial documents, the Church calls the faithful to do this work of deeper reflection to explain the reasons behind those moral teachings,[20] which represent a great “yes” to the dignity of persons.[21] This is a kind of training of the intellect and the heart. When this is then lived out in Catholic medical settings, we can become credible witnesses, and others will find what we do attractive.

[1] In a 2000 address to the 18th Congress of the International Transplant Society, Saint Pope John Paul II defined the moment of death like this: “the total disintegration of that unitary and integrated whole that is the personal self. It results from the separation of the life-principle (or soul) from the corporal reality of the person.”

[2] See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1008.

[3] See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 328 and 330.

[4] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, translated by Michael Waldstein, (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006). In the very helpful “Index of Words and Phrases” Michael Waldstein notes that there are 25 instances where John Paul II says that the person is a body rather than merely having a body.

[5] See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 988-1001.

[6] While it is not definitive Church teaching that St. Joseph is already reunited body and soul in heaven, for a helpful summary of Saints who have held this view and why they did, see, Donald H. Calloway, Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father, (Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press), 206-15.

[7] There is also a reverence due to the corpses of the dead. I cannot go into that further now, except to say that such reverence is not negated when I say that the full dignity of persons is present in all living human beings. See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2300.

[8] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2276.

[9] In a speech in which Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI noted that, “[M]an’s trouble is being unloved, being forgotten, the loneliness that destroys his life, that does not allow him to come to the wealth that opens up in being together, in the mystery of love,” he urged that “[We must] carry on the signs of the love of Jesus Christ: care for the sick and the suffering. Visiting them and giving them what no technology and no medicine is capable of giving them: the presence of compassion and common life; the power of understanding, which teaches them to believe in God’s love even in suffering.” Cited in Magnificat (August 2022), Vol. 24, No. 6, 100-102. Original source: Pope Benedict XVI, Teaching and Learning the Love of God: Being a Priest Today: Selected Writings, Translated by Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017).

[10] See Theology of the Body Audience 9 (pgs. 161-65) where John Paul II roots the idea of the communion of persons, in which we image the Trinitarian God, primarily in the male-female difference and complementarity.

[11] See St. Bonaventure, The Journey of the Mind to God, translated by Philotheus Boehner, OFM, Introduction and notes by Stephen F. Brown (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing House, 1993).

[12] See Theology of the Body Audience 15.1 (pgs. 185-86).

[13] See John Paul II, Letter to Families (1994), par. 11.

[14] See Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, translated by H.T. Willetts (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 226.

[15] Donum Vitae, Introduction, par. 3.

[16] See Deus Caritas Est, pars. 18 and 31.

[17] “Charity does not exclude knowledge, but rather requires, promotes, and animates it from within. Knowledge is never purely the work of the intellect…Deeds without knowledge are blind, and knowledge without love is sterile…[C]harity in truth requires first of all that we know and understand, acknowledging and respecting the specific competence of every level of knowledge…The demands of love do not contradict those of reason. Human knowledge is insufficient and the conclusions of science cannot indicate by themselves the path towards integral human development. There is always a need to push further ahead: this is what is required by charity in truth. Going beyond, however, never means prescinding from the conclusions of reason, nor contradicting its results. Intelligence and love are not in separate compartments: love is rich in intelligence and intelligence is full of love” (Caritas in Veritate, par. 30; emphasis in original).

[18] I have attempted a presentation of a Catholic anthropology in relation to medical ethics here: Peter J. Colosi, “A Catholic Anthropology and Medical Ethics” in Catholic Witness in Health Care, Practicing Medicine in Truth and Love, edited by John M. Travaline and Louise A. Mitchell (Washington, DC: Catholic University of American Press, 2017), 31 – 69.

[19] For a discussion of the meaning of “ethos” see John Paul II, Theology of the Body, Audiences 34–48, esp. 34:5 (pgs. 264–321, esp. 266).

[20] See, Donum Vitae, Conclusion.

[21] See, Dignitas Personae, par. 36.

Peter J. Colosi, Ph.D., is associate professor of philosophy at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He also taught for Franciscan University of Steubenville at their program in Gaming, Austria, and at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He earned his B.S. in mathematics from Franciscan University, an M.A. in Franciscan Studies from St. Bonaventure University, and his M.Phil. and Ph.D. from the International Academy of Philosophy in the Principality of Liechtenstein. His research interests center around philosophical personalism within the Catholic intellectual tradition and its application to ethics, and a few of his favorite thinkers are Socrates, Plato, Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II, and Max Scheler. Dr. Colosi has published in: The Linacre Quarterly, for which he is a Contributing Editor; Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; The Catholic Social Science Review; The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly; and Franciscan Studies. Every summer Colosi lectures at the Catholic Medical Association’s summer program for Catholic medical students. He is the main organizer of the Theology of the Body International Symposia, which have thus far been held in Austria, Ireland, England, Portugal and Holland. His personal website is peterjcolosi.com.