“Theology of the body” was made a popular topic in Catholic circles by the writing of St. John Paul II. It is still a relevant subject as evidenced by Pope Francis, who alludes to the negative effect an inaccurate understanding of the body has had on ecology and hermeneutics. “He [Jesus] was far removed from philosophies which despised the body, matter and the things of the world. Such unhealthy dualisms, nonetheless, left a mark on certain Christian thinkers in the course of history and disfigured the Gospel.” (Pope Francis, “Laudato Si’,” pa. 98) I believe the Holy Father’s reference to the problem of corporeality in “Laudato Si’” indicates that there is still a need to set forth a genuinely Catholic understanding of the body. Enter Jean Mouroux, a priest of the Diocese of Dijon who, in “The Meaning of Man,” (originally published in French in 1943 as “Sens chrétien de l’homme” and later translated into English by Sheed & Ward in 1948), sets forth a truly Catholic vision of the body, appealing first to experience, then to metaphysics and finally to theology. As in the writings of St. John Paul Il on this subject, so the perennial truths of both a conceptual and transcendental Thomism are woven into the fabric of Mouroux’s thought. Before his death in 1973, this little known theologian went on to write nine more books and more than 70 articles. In this and subsequent columns, I will endeavor to provide you with a summary of Mouroux’s treatment of the body as succinctly as possible. Please note that all references to “man” apply to all members of the human race, male and female alike.
The problem: matter is infinite and thereby unintelligible to man
Corporeality (“bodiliness”), in the theology of Jean Mouroux, is a complex issue which orbits around the incarnate paradox of unity in diversity, that is, man. In addressing this problem, Mouroux oscillates between metaphysics and theology, between the body-soul tension and the man-God tension in analyzing and contemplating the relations between man and the cosmos, man and his species, man and his God. Moreover, he depicts this mystery of incarnate spirit in the context of ontology, freedom and love. Let us recapitulate the trajectory of Mouroux’s thought regarding the notion of “body,” first from a metaphysical perspective, then from a theological standpoint.
One cannot penetrate the mystery of the body without examining it in relation to the soul, which, like the body, is an associate principle of man’s composition. The soul is man’s principle of unity and intelligibility. The body, on the other hand, is a principle of his diversity. The body
is the instrument of the soul. Its purpose is to serve the soul as its means of expression, action and communion.
The cooperation of the body is required in the soul’s organic, immanent and religious activity. The fact that matter and spirit, the two principles of man’s being, are held in the unity of his person is a paradox. This body-soul unity is a paradox because the truth of these seemingly contradictory poles is found in their union in man. Mouroux realizes, then, that there is a certain tension between the body and soul.
Syntheses of activity
In studying this body-soul unity, Mouroux underscores the soul as the body’s “form” or actuating principle. Thus, the soul individuates itself by its relation with the body; accordingly, matter is man’s first principle of individuality. The problem, however, is that matter is infinite and thereby unintelligible to man. Even in its juncture with form, the material principle does not explain itself to him. This is the problem of corporeality. Man, therefore, can only make sense of this unity or synthesis by transcending himself, by ascending to a higher synthesis. In a word, organic activity only becomes comprehensible when it is viewed in the light of immanent activity.
Man is more than a body. He is a spiritual substance which subsists, that is, exists in, for and by himself. Here, then, man is ushered onto the plane of existence, where he subsists as a spiritual individual. With the cooperation of the body, the soul engages in acts of intellection and volition. Although the spirit is self-conscious; matter can be a hindrance to self-consciousness. The spirit, however, actualizes the body (potency) by intellective abstraction. Through the mutual causality of the intellect and will, the soul is able to perceive and comprehend truth by abstracting form from matter. At this point in the hierarchy of activity, man becomes aware of his singularity concerning other people. Here, then, Mouroux highlights the tension in the relation between the individual and the species. Because man is a spirit, he aspires to fulfillment through freedom and communion with his species in love; however, since man is subsistence, he can never be absorbed by the species. The individual and the species are bound by a common nature, the form “humanity,” and by matter. They are also related by a common love for the Whole. On one hand, by virtue of the common nature, the species is contained within the individual. On the other hand, by virtue of matter, the individual is contained within the species. In a certain way, then, the individual man, by
virtue of his subsistence, is a “whole,” existing in and for himself, autonomous from all other beings. Paradoxically, however, he is but a part or, better, one member of the species, which, as a corporate entity, forms a “whole” in itself.
In organic activity, Mouroux detects a “becoming,” a movement of unification, which is due to the body-soul tension and which is manifest in psycho-organic growth. Inasmuch as man is a body, he is bound by the conditions of corporeality: space, time, opacity and plurality. Insofar as man is a spirit, he is able to transcend his corporeality. In immanent activity, he is called to a spiritual becoming due to the individual-species tension. Man is something in himself; yet he is called to become more. Inasmuch as “becoming” signifies “unification” or “integration,” it also implies “completion” or “fulfillment”; consequently, one can conclude that man is called to fulfill himself and his species. Concomitantly, the species is called to work towards the Common Good, which presupposes the cooperation of its members. Neither the individual nor the species can attain fulfillment except through and in each other. Accordingly, this presupposes the power to fulfill, namely, freedom. In short, man is to ratify himself through relations with his species in freedom. Here Mouroux is stressing still another paradox of unity in diversity: man is subsistent and open. Subsistence implies autonomy and the power to exclude; openness, however, underlines the power to include. In terms of freedom, the capacity to exclude translates into the power to negate or reject, whereas the ability to include translates into the power to affirm or accept. Because man is rational and subsistent, he is the source of this freedom of choice, and thereby free from all necessity. This freedom of choice which he possesses, is so sacred that it can even choose to exclude God.
Father Glenn Comandini is advisor to The Catholic Spirit.
One cannot penetrate the mystery of the body without examining it in relation to the soul, which, like the body, is an associate principle of man’s composition…The body is the instrument of the soul. Its purpose is to serve the soul as its means of expression, action and communion.