New York Times columnist David Brooks recently noted the visceral kind of cringe we experience when we hear that ISIS jihadis have decapitated yet another person. Brooks adeptly explained that the thought of a person’s head torn away from the rest of him triggers horror precisely because of its bold irreverence toward the human form. In Brooks’ words, the human body is “spiritualized matter,” and that is why we recoil when it’s defiled.
Brooks’ observations remind me of those Saint Pope John Paul II made when he warned against the Cartesian dualism permeating Western cultural thought. We have swallowed whole the pill first dished to us by seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, who gave us “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes and his philosophical progeny proposed a radical separation between the observable world and the “interior life” of man. This line of thought led also to a conceptual separation between the person and the body, between the spirit and the flesh. Indeed, modern culture has made this separation so completely that imagining the soul as literally wrapped up in and integrated with the body can feel awkward even to many practicing faithful.
But the rejection of body-spirit connectedness has broad implications in the Western tradition, particularly concerning the culture of death. As John Paul II warned, the false separation between person and flesh is at the heart of the lie that this dark current perpetuates and that ranks utility over love: if I am something other than my body, my body can easily be treated merely as a tool, as a means to an end, with no identifiable consequence to the person housed in the body. Under this misconception, the body—as it is created, exists, functions, and dies in nature—has no relevance to truth. My body qua body has nothing normative to say about how I should order my behavior. As a result, human sexuality and procreative capacity can be manipulated and exploited; suffering is devoid of meaning and to be avoided even at the price of murdering oneself.
Brooks was correct to remind us that religion rejects this false separation. In the Catholic tradition, we are instructed by our Creator and by revealed tradition that Descartes got it wrong: a person is not a rational mind apart from a body, and the body and spirit are not opposed to one another. We are persons in the unity of body and spirit and accept this truth as anthropological fact. God called his human creation “very good,” and Christ, through his Incarnation, redeemed our whole persons, including our bodies and all of the suffering that we inevitably endure because we exist in bodily form. The teaching is so central that Catholics profess belief in the “resurrection of the body” every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed.
Keeping in mind the unity of body and spirit is useful for addressing every front of the culture of death, including the newest battle, assisted suicide. Through this lens it is easier to see that hastening the death of the flesh is contrary to the well-being of the person: what is bad for the body is bad for the spirit, and therefore the person, because the body and the spirit exist in harmony.
Recently I had the great privilege of witnessing, through the eyes of a friend, the holy death of his elderly father. Surrounded by family, filled with grace and gratitude for his life and his faith, this dear man’s life on Earth came to its end. But what is just as praiseworthy as the life well lived was his children’s uncommon obedience to the explicit direction we receive from Ecclesiastes not to mourn our fathers during their lifetimes. His children remained a part of the fabric of their father’s daily life and accompanied him in love until his last breath. They revered the full person of their ailing father until and after his natural death. Enduring the dying process—and all of the suffering and difficulty that it inevitably entails—on nature’s time was, for every person involved, life-affirming, important, meaningful, and spiritually healthy.
Many share similarly poignant stories of end-of-life care. This kind of grace is the answer to the violence that ISIS jihadis do in the open all at once and that the culture of death would have us do secretly and incrementally to ourselves. Our bodies are indeed spiritualized matter, and we ignore this fact at our peril. Reclaiming the physical body as inseparable from our understanding of what it means to exist as persons is crucial to restoring a culture of life in the Western tradition.
Editor’s note: Above is a portrait of René Descartes painted by Frans Hals in 1648.