Incarnational Thomism

Here’s an article on Saint John Paul II’s philosophical reflections which I am characterizing as ‘Incarnational Thomism’. See also the book ‘Memory and Identity’, an extended interview with Pope John Paul II and, of course, the reflections themselves in the translation, “Man and Woman He Created Them” translated by Michael Waldstein.

Mary Rosera Joyce, MA, is a philosopher and author from St Cloud, Minnesota. Her husband, Robert E Joyce, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. This piece first appeared in The NaProEthics Forum, July, 1990, Vol 3, No 4, which is published by the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Nebraska. Both Mrs Joyce and her husband are listed on its Board of Advisors.

The Human Person in a Whole New Light

by Mary R Joyce, MA

In his theology of the body, Pope John Paul II stated something new in our way of thinking about us as human beings. Many people have welcomed his person-based view, but mistakenly thought, and still insist, that it should allow the “right to control my own body.” Their concept of a person’s body-control, like that of most contemporary personalists, includes contraception, abortion, assisted suicide, homoeroticism, and other such behaviors. So they simply decide that the Pope in inconsistent and not to be taken seriously.

But their form of personalism is extremely subjective. As a result, they see the human subject relating to the human body as to an object, and the subject as free to do with this object whatever the subject chooses. Most of the influential philosophers from Descartes (17th century) onward saw the human subject in a split subject-object way. With Sartre (20th century), this inner chasm became unbearably extreme. Contemporary personalism is strongly influenced by Catesian-Sartrean “schizophrenic” subjectivism. But John Paul II is no subjectivist.

As a follower of St Thomas Aquinas, the present Pope affirms theintrinsic oneness of soul and body in the human person. He does not see the body as an object to be managed by a “liberated,” controlling subject. He and St Thomas agree on that point; on the same point, hoever, they also differ.

Different Points of View

St Thomas, following Aristotle, saw the soul-body union through the body. From this point of view, the soul exists in the body and is body-based.

In the light of the “image and likeness of God,” Pope John Paul II sees the soul-body union from the opposite direction. He sees the bodythrough the soul, which means that the body exists in the soul as the soul’s intrinsic self-expression. The result is a definite shift in perspective, but with identical moral conclusions — to the great disappointment of today’s pro-choice personalists.

New Growth in the Roots

Because of its shift in perspective, the theology of the body implies new growth in the roots of metaphysics, the philosophy of being. In an age that challenges everything traditional, this further development is needed to strengthen the philosophical support for our religious faith. Without added depth to its metaphysical roots, especially in its first intuitions and intuitive judgments, the traditional philosophy of Aristotle and St Thomas is like an evergreen tree that is leaning heavily from prevailing winds and storms, and is losing its vitality. In this weakened condition, the great philosophy has been unable to prevent or deter the culture of death that is emerging from contemporary personalism and its background in history. Only by new growth in its roots can the “evergreen” increase its vitality and intensify its cultural influence.

From Nature to Being

Seeing the soul through the body is proper for the philosophy of nature, which approaches the spiritual through the material. But it is not proper for the philosophy of being, which approaches all things as beings — material and spiritual — through their relationships within themselves and with all others.

In the light of being (the first intuitive principle of reason recognized by the traditional philosophy), we can see all beings differently than we see them as objects in nature. As an object in the material world, the human being has a body-based immortal soul, and is definable as a rational animal. but nowhere does Scripture say, or even imply, that we are basically animals. Instead, we are like God (Genesis 1:26-27) and a little less than the angels (Psalm 8:5). When this supernatural light shines on our natural intuition of being, we can better see ourselves as persons. In the resultant metaphysical light, we can begin to see thatwe do not have a biology-based personhood, but a person-based biology. Everything within us, even our most animal-like functions such as eating and sleeping, belongs to a person. While we are like animals, we are even more like other persons: angelic and Divine. They are our primary and eternal companions in being; the animals are our secondary and transient companions in this world of cosmic nature.

Even if evolution is somehow involved in our appearance among the animals, no human soul was infused into an animal body. We might better interpret the way in which the human being began in this world. In an instant, the soul assimilated sufficiently-evolved genetic material into itself, and simultaneously transformed this material into its similar-to-the-animals, yet entirely different, self-expression.

Through the philosophy of nature, we can know that God and the human soul exist, but we cannot know much about them. Through the philosophy of being, illuminated by divine revelation, we can know much more. We can see that, in the community of human-angelic-divine persons, we differ from all others, by having bodies, and we can naturally wonder what this means.

What is a Person?

A person is a substantial being that differs from all others by being able to relate, through knowing and loving, with being as being. This knowing is intuitive and immediate; this loving is spontaneous. The ultimate purpose for the existence of all persons is love. Thus, God islove.

All persons — human, angelic, and Divine — know intuitively (immediately) and love spontaneously. Angelic persons differ from Divine Persons by being finite. And humans differ from angels by being sensient and rational. Though we are primarily intuitive, the intrinsic bond of our intuitive intellects with our bodily senses requires the rational functions of abstraction, judgment, and reasoning.

A person might be defined, then, as an intellectually intuitive, volitional being whose relational nature either is love or is fulfilled in love. On this person-base, the human being might be defined as a bodily (sensient-rational) person.

Person-Based Rationality

Our most specific difference from the animals is not our power to reason, as the “rational animal” definition indicates, but our intellectually intuitive power to know the begin of anything as a being: this is what it is. Without an immediate intellectual intuition of thebeing of a thing we are sensing (through, beyond, and simultaneously with our sensing), we could not wonder what that thing is. Without the intuition of being we could not think and reason about anything; it would be impossible. Thus, we have a person-based rationality.

Well before we begin to reason, we humans have this extremely simple, but absolutely momentous, intuition of being — even unconsciously in the womb. When our rationality finally becomes somewhat developed, we are still overwhelmingly intuitive, and minimally rational in comparison. Most of this intellectual intuition, like the largest part of an island, is below the surface. That is, it is not conscious. But it is thegenerating source of the conscious, above-the-surface processes of reason. Conscious thinking begins, ends, and is constituted within deep and powerful preconscious, intellectual intuitions.

Person-Based Sexuality

The sexuality of a bodily person is not the same as that of a “rational animal.” When, in the context of nature, we approach the soul through the body, we see our sexuality soming primarily from our body and affecting our soul. But when we perceive our body through our personhood, as does John Paul II, we experience our sexuality primarily in our spiritual soul. Consequently, our sexuality is seen as our soul intrinsically expressed in our body.

What Difference Does It Make?

A big difference! Try becoming aware of your body as an intrinsic expression of your person. Because they are so objectifying, your eyes are likely to interfere with this awareness. So, close your eyes, and mentally absorb your body within yourself. It’s like coming home to your being as it really is. When we are at home with our being, we experience our personhood and our sexuality as sacred.

Understanding our body as person-based makes a big difference in our sense of us as persons. Our self-concept becomes more profoundly interior, and, at the same time, more relational and open to other beings as beings. We become better able to relate respectfully and carefully with our needs and feelings. We diminish our inclinations toward manipulation by either suppression or over indulgence. We become more sure of what we naturally intuit to be true in the light of our faith, even though we can’t always explain it to ourselves or to anyone else.

One of the greatest advantages of the new perspective is its further strengthening of traditional morality. Instead of lessening the value and significance of the human body, the person-based body is experienced as much more integral to the person, and less of a biological object. In this increased light of inner unity, any subject-object “freedom-of-choice to control my own body” is more unacceptable than it was before. Thus, the person-based theology of the body is opposed to contraception and its syndrome of perversions, rather than open to them, as other forms of personalism tend to be.


Thanks to Pope John Paul II, reflections such as this are possible not only in the Church, but in the culture at large. Much more could be explained. The intuitive roots are sinking deeper and becoming stronger, and the prospects for further development are immense. Beyond the decadent personalism that is now driving the culture of death, we can see and experience our personhood in a whole new light — a light as ever ancient (Gen 1:26-27) as it is ever new.

This entry was posted in Church. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s