Crises, Tidings, and Revelations: A Child is Born

This past Christmas, I was struck by a meaning that had not occurred to me before in the antiphon, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” Every Christmas is a celebration of the great central doctrine of our faith, that God took on Himself our human nature and became a member of our human race. But this Christmas, I saw it as particularly significant that the child who came forth into the light in Bethlehem was born as all children are born, with a body from a woman’s body.

For our human nature consists of body and soul. We are not souls trapped in bodies, as certain ancient heretics believed. Our bodies are essential parts of our nature, without which we would not be human. When God became man, His human body, like ours, was a constitutive element of His human nature. As St. John says, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.”

In becoming flesh God showed His respect for and love of our whole nature, our bodies as well as our souls. He thereby showed us that the flesh is not evil, as the old heresies taught. Nor are our bodies mere instruments of our wills, which we may use and abuse for our own purposes, as certain new heresies teach.

The new heresies of which I speak are not religious doctrines. Rather, they present themselves as scientific and thoroughly rational. They manifest themselves in a range of technologies designed to make life easier and safer for us. But all of them reduce our bodies to instruments of our desires.

Behind this view of the body is the idea of man as a conscious, self-determining will that owns and uses the body in which it dwells. Curiously, even materialists, for whom there is nothing but matter, for whom consciousness is only an epiphenomenon of matter, and for whom logically a person can be no more than a body, nonetheless situate personhood in consciousness. When consciousness (or “cognitive ability” as they sometimes call it) has not emerged, as in the earliest stage of life, or has disappeared beyond recovery, as at times in the last stage of life, personhood does not exist. Neither does the truly human life that we recognize and respect in persons.

This change in our attitude toward the body increasingly permeates our culture. We now live, for example, in a culture based on contraceptive devices that prevent the conception of unwanted children. They in turn have led to what is called the Sexual Revolution. That is to say, to the separation of sexual intercourse from procreation, to such consequences as sexual relations before and outside of marriage and, finally, to acceptance of sex acts as recreational activities.

The Sexual Revolution has also led to about 1.5 million abortions every year in this country; abortions put an end to nearly one out of every three pregnancies. The Revolution also explains why the American people, who obviously do not like homosexual acts, nonetheless find it so hard to say what is wrong with them. All of the above are results of instrumentalizing our bodies, instead of regarding them as constitutive parts of our very nature as human beings.

The latest development in the new attitude toward the body is the production of human embryos in the laboratory for the purpose of performing experiments on them that will inevitably result in their death. The scientists who produce the embryos show no compunction about doing this. On the contrary, a panel of the National Institutes of Health recently recommended that the federal government fund this kind of research. The newly- elected Congress may refuse to grant the funds that the panel asks for, but only if enough Americans vigorously protest such a use of public money.

It is not at all clear that the American conscience will denounce these experiments as an inhuman use of human beings, or even recognize that embryos are human beings. I recently saw a film entitled “Junior,” which I went to see because Emma Thompson was in it. She was her usual charming self and the film, to be fair, was a comedy that did not intend to be taken seriously. In fact, it would be impossible to take it seriously, since it assumed that a man could be made pregnant simply be injecting a fertilized ovum into his abdomen. Yet the film began and largely took place in one of those laboratories where experiments are performed on living embryos, and there was no hint, from one end of the film to the other, that anyone saw anything wrong with this. This viewer was left with the sinking feeling that such experiments are now so generally accepted that we can turn them into a joke. And that reveals a radical change in our view of human nature and of what a human being is.

The child born in Bethlehem on Christmas Day was and is an equally radical rejection of this new way of thinking about our own humanity. By becoming man, God showed us that the flesh is not evil and is not disposable matter. It is an essential and indispensable part of what makes us human, which we must respect as such if we want to go on being human.


  • Francis Canavan, S.J.

    A prominent Catholic intellectual and political theorist, Francis Canavan was born in New York City in 1917, joined the Society of Jesus in 1939, and was ordained in 1950. After receiving his doctorate from Duke University in political science in 1957 (where he studied under John H. Hallowell), Canavan taught at St. Peter’s College and served as associate editor of America before joining the faculty of Fordham University, where he taught from 1966 until his retirement in 1988. He died in 2009.

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