To Restore a Culture of Life, Reclaim the Body

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.

Anne R. MacLean


Anne R. MacLean is a stay-at-home mother pursuing a master’s degree in theology. She formerly worked as a press secretary on Capitol Hill before earning a J.D., cum laude, in 2008 from Catholic University of America. She practiced commercial litigation at a mid-size firm in the Midwest.

  • Blaise Pascal

    I tried to convince Decartes the error of his ways but alas to no avail.

  • Vinny

    “This line of thought led also to a conceptual separation between the person and the body, between the spirit and the flesh.” This is similar to our knowing Jesus only in our minds and not pursuing a real, day by day, hour by hour, and, saintly, minute by minute relationship with Him.

    • Lou Iacobelli

      But sadly this is why a verbal faith disconnected from the flesh (a symbolic relationship with Christ) is what we too often practice. Bonhoeffer called this kind of belief cheap grace.

      • Vinny

        Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.

        • Lou Iacobelli

          Amen! Amen!

  • EMK

    The separation of the spirit from the body is at the root of eastern mysticism and one of the reasons why it is philosophically opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Thank you for stating the matter from a Catholic point of you so elegantly.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    Two OUTRAGEOUS wastes of money by Religious (n’est-ce pas?). Quiz, what do these stories have to do with the above article?:

    “Hart’s Island was New York City’s ‘potter’s field’. An unknown buried there was later found to be an American veteran of World War 1. A dishwasher, until shortly before his death in the 1950’s, he had sent small donations to a group of French nuns who had nursed him back to health during the war. When his letters stopped coming, the nuns investigated to find out what had happened to him. They learned that he had died penniless and alone and had been buried in a pauper’s grave. They paid to have his remains brought to France and buried in their convent.”

    “After the making of the film ‘The Flowers of St. Francis, Rossellini wanted to make a donation to the monks of Nocere Inferiore Monastery who acted in the film. He expected them to ask that the donation be something charitable – setting up a soup kitchen or the like. Instead, the monks surprised everyone by asking for an enormous and elaborate fireworks display rhat was the talk of the region for years.”

    • publiusnj

      I don’t know what they have to do with the article, but the first story reminds me of another story I know. Henri Matisse was also nursed back to health by French nuns and out of his gratitude, he designed and executed the masterpiece known as the Matisse Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, France that I have had the privilege of visiting. So many of the great donated works of art that grace Catholic churches for literally hundreds of years start out as seeming extravagances. Over time, as thousands, even millions of people, are warmed by their messages, the extravagance is amortized and grace abounds. Without them, moreover, the interior of Catholic Churches would be as artless as almost all protestant churches (St. Thomas Episcopal on Fifth Avenue in NYC being one of the few exceptions I have seen). That would be a profound loss.

  • Lou Iacobelli

    Wonderful post. Language is a great tool but it can also deceive us. On this issue, we can’t really separate the body from the soul (human thought) by saying, “I think, therefore I am.” It would be more accurate to say, “I am, therefore I can think.” Descartes like many others are merely playing with language and meaning. They have bought the “reality” of the symbolic world. We can divide the body from thought vebally into categories but we can never in the physical world. Saint John Paul II got it right with the Theology of the Body. The word and the thing aren’t the same thing. The word is a sign for soemething. But we have misused words to create a culture of death through abortion, euthanasia and by the self definition of human sexuality. Before, anyone can think one needs to be born. What good are human rights if one is not allowed to be born or euthannized? The body comes first and though follows. It’s only as adults that we can use languafe to please the will and pretend that we are changing the body. The make believe world of genderland is an example of this. It all exists in the constructed world of words and politically correct symbols, but not in the world of experience, sense and biology. Good and useful maps should always reflect the territory they represent or what’s a map for?

  • hombre111

    Good job. Congratulations.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The real absurdity of Descartes’s mind-body dualism is brought out by Locke, who asked whether the “thinking substance” which thought the thought “I did it” might not be a different “thinking substance” from the one that could have had the thought, “I am doing it,” when the act was done. Thus, Locke was able to detach the identity of the “self” or “person” from the identity even of the thinking being which does the actual thinking of the I-thoughts.

    There is no mystery about what a “person” is. We all know what “the person over there” means or what the “Offences against the Person Act” deals with. It means a living human body. My body is the body of whose actions, posture &c I have reflexive (non-observational) awareness. As for the “self,” it is simply a misconstruction of the reflexive pronoun, just as the “mind” is an hypostasized abstraction.

    • redfish

      Though Descartes makes clear in his Meditations that he doesn’t believe the mind and body are separate, he just believes they can be separated on a purely formal and abstract level, which they can.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        “[H]e just believes they can be separated on a purely formal and abstract level, which they can”

        But, if we try, we find we are thinking about nothing.

        As the Catholic philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe explains:-

        “I have from time to time such thoughts as “I am sitting,” “I am writing,” “I am going to stay still”, “I twitched.” There is the question: in happenings, events, etc. concerning what object are these verified or falsified? The answer is ordinarily easy to give because I can observe, and can point to, my body; I can also feel one part of it with another. “This body is my body” then means “My idea that I am standing up is verified by this body, if it is standing up.” And so on. But observation does not show me which body is the one. Nothing shows me that… “I” is not a name: these I-thoughts are examples of reflective consciousness of states, actions, motions, etc., not of an object I mean by “I,” but of this body.”

        Hence, “These I-thoughts (allow me to pause and think some!) are unmediated conceptions (knowledge or belief, true or false) of states, motions, etc., of this object here, about which I can find out (if I don’t know it) that it is E.A. About which I did learn that it is a human being… The I-thoughts now that have this connection with E.A. are I-thoughts on the part of the same human being as the I-thoughts that had that connection twenty years ago. No problem of the continuity or re-identification of ‘the I’ can arise. There is no such thing. There is E.A., who, like other humans, has such thoughts as these. And who probably learned to have them through learning to say what she had done, was doing, etc. — an amazing feat of imitation.”

        • redfish

          We’re certainly talking about something, otherwise we couldn’t coherently talk about it. In fact, we wouldn’t have two separate words — “mind” and “body” — if we couldn’t see them as conceptually different. Why two words, if they’re the same thing? Nor would we have expressions like “the mind is willing, but the body is weak”(para. Matthew 26:41); which certainly isn’t a meaningless expression. Nor would we have practical situations, say in psychology, where we understand something has to be better understood as emotional rather than physical; mental rather than bodily.

          The point would be that people read more into Descartes than he’s saying. He’s made into a kind of whipping boy that people can use to complain about “dualism”, while he never really believed the mind and body were separate. But his original point, that we can conceptualize them as different, still stands; and is just a bit of common sense.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            “We’re certainly talking about something, otherwise we couldn’t coherently talk about it.”

            We can talk about dogs, although no such thing as “dog” exists in reality. There are certain things, unit and individual, that correspond to or satisfy our notion or definition of a dog. Now, notions and definitions are not things, but concepts. (Of course, “this dog here” is real – the one I can point to; in this case, “dog” is a predicate and may be true or false)

            As concepts or abstractions, “mind” and “body” are harmless enough. It is when they obscure the fact that there is a single subject that thinks, feels, intends, talks, writes, jumps up and down &c that it becomes mischievous.

            I can say “I have broken my arm” and I can say “I am annoyed.” In the first case, it makes sense for someone to say, “No, you have not; it is merely sprained.” In the second case it makes no sense for someone else to say, “No, you are not annoyed.” We all understand the difference, without needing to invoke the idea of a composite subject composed of two substances, a mind and a body.

            • redfish

              We may not need to invoke a “mind” and a “body”, but the difference can be explained in a way that’s semantically helpful: that people have more knowledge of their own mental state than their own bodily state.

              Its not simply that these distinctions are “harmless” — they’re *useful* semantically. And to the degree that semantic distinctions are useful, they refer to real distinctions in the real world; otherwise they couldn’t be useful. They’d be completely useless.

              But we agree that there’s a simple subject, I’m just pointing out that Descartes agreed as well.

              • Michael Paterson-Seymour

                We can know a great deal about other people’s mental states, too.

                To take a couple of examples from Wittgenstein,

                “I can only believe that someone else is in pain, but I know it if I am.”—Yes: one can make the decision to say “I believe he is in pain” instead of “He is in pain”. But that is all.——What looks like an explanation here, or like a statement about a mental process, is in truth an exchange of one expression for another which, while we are doing philosophy, seems the more appropriate one.

                Just try—in a real case—to doubt someone else’s fear or pain.


                What is the natural expression of an intention?—Look at a cat when it stalks a bird; or a beast when it wants to escape.

                • redfish

                  Yes, I’ve read Wittgenstein.

                  Just a side note.. Descartes’ understanding of what is objective is perception understood as as a perception… which ties into Wittgenstein’s epistemology. Just as you can know you are in pain, you can also know that you’re perceiving something, even though you might have mistaken notions about what you’re percieving.

                  Which is more central to the point of his Meditations than any mind-body dualism.

                  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

                    As a student of Wittgenstein, you will recall that he insists that “I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking. It is correct to say “I know what you are thinking,” and wrong to say “I know what I am thinking.” (A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar.)”

                    • redfish

                      Because he considers knowledge as based on evidence, that can be doubted, as I understand, and he considers it a nonsensical statement. So to say you “know” you’re in pain, or are thinking, is, to him, just to give emphasis to something and not claim knowledge.

                      I disagree with Wittgenstein on a lot of his finer points. For instance, I disagree with him on his statement that thought needs do be done through representation — at least how he means it — verbal, or pictorial. Thought only needs to have a referent; representation only aides reference, but people do it without representation all the time. Sometimes these referents are not external, but internal — past experiences, thoughts, feelings and sensations. You can also used past experiences, thoughts, feelings and sensations, as evidentiary in an internal dialogue — as well as use your understanding of the meaning of words as evidentiary. Which is why a statement like “I know that I am thinking” means something to a person : because the person is actually gathering referents.

                      Interestingly, Wittgenstein defends Freud in talking about “unconscious thoughts”, though considers it non-literal.

  • ColdStanding

    The question is how does one go about undoing the effects the Descartes’ “pill”? The contagion has driven a deep root and will not be undone by having a chat about it. These are spiritual maladies we are talking about. A correction, ordered by a restored reason, addressed to a disordered reason simply isn’t going to work. The disordered reason can not respond but in a disordered way.

    The Saints teach that chastisements of the Descartesian species are allowed by God specifically because He intends to meet out justice for offences against Him. How do you placate God when He is offended? Issue a letter? A spiritual disorder requires a spiritual remedy. The remedy is penance. There are three types: prayer, fasting, and alms. These, especially the second, are properly called mortifications. The object of the mortification is the body. Without the body being brought into subjection the virtues can not flourish. No virtue. No heaven.

    How then, has this come about? What is the offence against God? It is, I propose, the heresy of religion as a private matter. Stated from the opposite direction, it is the wrong idea that God is optional. A ghost in the machine. It is possible, in conjecture, to formulate an idea that a universe without God is possible, but that isn’t the universe we are in. Our minds do not work properly without God as the principle principle.

    The fall of Adam was a lack of faith in God’s commandments. It could only be repaired by an act of infinite faith, Jesus Christ doing the will of His Father in Heaven. The pattern holds. The reparation must fit the offence. If reason, that which is given to us by God to know Him, has been publicly offended, public reparations must be made for the offence. The infinite propitiation of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross of Calvary, must be applied.

    There is no dialogue with error. There is no saving the Enlightenment. It is a millstone around the neck. It must be cut off. We are already in the water and sinking fast.

    • Michael S.

      “The question is how does one go about undoing the effects….” In reference to this article I would suggest that the acts of ISIS are no different than the act of abortion (except when the life of the mother is in danger…which is an extremely rare occurrence). When one states this fact one’s invitation to dinner parties will be drastically reduced.
      “…public reparations must be made for the offense.” When reading this I remembered how St. Ignatius of Loyola did penance for a friend’s sinful lifestyle. This act suggests that I do penance for another’s sin and blindness. Thanks

      • ColdStanding

        It just so happens that Monday, a holiday in these here parts, afforded me the opportunity to read the last part of the Catechism of the Council of Trent on the sacrament of confession. The teaching is that you can make satisfaction for another if they themselves have contrition and have repented & confessed. Penance can not be done for someone that has not confessed their sins because acts of penance pertain to “making satisfaction” for the wrong that has been confessed and absolved.

        However, you can pray and fast for someone else that God have mercy upon them and grant them conversion. Conversion being the work of the Holy Spirit. This would be called a work of Charity.

        Blessed Fransico Palau has a method of hearing the Holy Sacrifice, granted it is best suited to the old order of the Mass, where in one pleads the case of the unrepentant sinner before the thrown of Heaven which is probably more along the lines of what you want to do.

        I know that the talk these days is all about going out into the world and just being with or walking with or some such thing, the sinner. However this does not seem to be consistent with the constant teaching of the Saints who recommend fleeing sinners, unbelievers, heretics, atheists and the like. They never suggest not praying and fasting for their conversion. The do suggests that, being so very easily lead into sinning, we avoid those that will tempt us to deny the faith in some way.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      But there is an intellectual error involved at the very heart of the Cartesian philosophy.

      It consists in the belief that “I” is a referring expression, but it is no more a referring expression than “it” is a referring expression in “it is raining.”

      “I am MPS.” not an identity proposition. It is connected with an identity proposition, namely, “This thing here is MPS” and “I am this thing here.” Now, obviously, the “thing” is a living human body. It really is that simple and it is what Aristotle means, when he defines man as a rational animal.

      • PSdan

        So, Aristotelian hylemorphism then? Is this Anscombe’s view? What Anscombe text would you recommend to understand her on this topic?

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          The First Person by G. E. M. Anscombe (1975). In Samuel Guttenplan, ed., Mind and Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), pp. 45-65.

          The closest acknowledgement of her debt to Aristotle is: “If the principle of human rational life in E.A. is a soul (which perhaps can survive E.A., perhaps again animate E.A.) that is not the reference of “I”. Nor is it what I am. I am E.A. and shall exist only as long as E.A. exists. But, to repeat, “I am E.A.” is not an identity proposition.”

          Her main argument is based on grammatical analysis, in the manner of her mentor, Wittgenstein and concludes, “And this is the solution: “‘I’ is neither a name nor another kind of expression whose logical role is to make a reference, at all.”

      • ColdStanding

        As much as your school sniffs at Cardinal Mercier, I think he is quite solid in diagnosing Decartes error:

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          Mercier is right enough, when he says that Descartes ought to have said, “I am aware that I doubt; it is possible that I exist, but I may be deceived.” It is only the-thinking-that-thinks-this-thought that is guaranteed by “cogito,” a point taken by Hume.

          Likewise, Descartes would have to establish that the referent in different “I”-thoughts is the same, leading Bertrand Russell to speak of “short-term selves.” That is why Locke could speculate that the “thinking substance” which thought the thought “I did it” might be a different “thinking substance” from the one that could have had the thought: “I am doing it” when the act was done.

          Hence Gilson’s little aphorism, “Idealists think; realists know.”

  • St JD George

    I am more aware every day of the temporal nature of our finite lives, and acutely aware that at the hour of our judgment which we know not, we will not be judged by our longevity but by the fullness of the life we were given. My heart truly aches for those suffering in the ME and Africa today, the crises of our times.

  • Veritas

    After reading this I am not sure I should continue with plans for my own cremation. I have read what the Church instructions are in regard to this.

    • Anne MacLean

      Veritas, If I recall correctly, you are totally fine to cremate as long as it isn’t in defiance of the Church’s teaching on the resurrection of the body. Surely our theology is deeper than that – we all turn to ashes whether we’re buried in a grave or not. God can resurrect us anyway! Go for it, if for licit reasons.

      • Veritas

        Thanks, Anne. I want my kids to keep more of my small estate. Why spend such a small fortune when my kids will need it? Church rules say to bury the ashes in a container, or keep them contained at all times instead of scattering them. Even so, you are right and God will recompose all of us, I would imagine.

  • lifeknight

    Great article, Mom. You are doing the hardest job you’ll ever love. Keep writing.