Care for the Self
As we saw in the introductory page, and in Care for Others, ours is a life lived in complete freedom: freedom to live a life of joy in Christ and to grow closer to Him, or freedom to live a life that will damage our spiritual health and wellbeing. These are not legal matters, but the natural outcomes of the way in which we exercise our free will. If you have not yet read the introductory page, please do so—the approach outlined there is necessary to understand the Church’s understanding of morality.
The Human Being: a Christian Understanding
In order to understand the holistic moral teaching of Christianity, especially the matters covered in this section, it is helpful to reflect on Christian anthropology, or our understanding of the human person’s very nature. To use St. Paul’s classical divisions, the Human person is made up of body, psyche, and spirit. The body is physical, the psyche (variously translated as ‘soul’, ‘life’, ‘mind’, or ‘nature’) is rational, and the spirit is participates in immaterial reality. Humanity is the only living thing in all creation that bridges the gap between the material order, and the immaterial order.
The material order encompasses everything that can be observed empirically—plants and animals are part of this material order only, they have no immaterial aspect to them. The immaterial order encompasses the bodiless powers: the orders of angelic powers, as well as the fallen evil angels, typically called ‘demons’. The bodiless powers, as their name implies, have no body and are not part of the material order. Clearly both plants and animals have a body. Yet only advanced animals, which exhibit characteristics of self-awareness, could be said to have a psyche. In addition to body and psyche, humans, however, also have a spirit, and in this respect they not only share materiality with plants and animals, but they also share immateriality with the angelic powers.
This synthetic human nature has created no end of confusion over the millennia—the ancient Greeks believed that a human person was truly spirit, and the body was simply a prison from which the spirit needed to escape; they would mistakenly see humans as angels. In our time, the reverse is the problem: empiricists believe that a human person is only body (and, perhaps, psyche) while the spirit is a delusion created to cope with natural phenomena; they would mistakenly see humans as animals.
There is a further complication—what we can observe empirically about humanity is not only limited to the material aspect of our nature, but it is also limited to a fallen human nature that is given to addictions, disorders, impulses, and delusions that are neither beneficial nor natural to human nature as God created it. Simply to observe what is the case about human behavior cannot tell us anything about what human behavior ought to be. This must be revealed by some One Who predates and stands outside of our fallen condition, some One Who knows how He designed us to function. This is why, having received the teaching of Jesus Christ—Who, long before His incarnation, first formed humanity—the Church speaks about matters that our culture treats as ‘private decisions of adults’. These seemingly private decisions still have the ability to damage the human person—even if this trauma is only ever manifest on the spiritual level. What is more, because all humanity shares a common nature, the damage done by—or to—one human person affects all of humanity. There can be no private sin, because we are invisibly connected—all of us, one to another—by our shared human nature.
The Christian view of human sexuality has always understood it as first: a means for bringing a husband and a wife together in a union that includes, yet transcends the physical; and second: a means for participating in God’s creative act in bringing a new human person into existence. Although humans—according to the material aspect of our nature—share physicality and the mechanics of sexual reproduction with the animal kingdom, because we are not simply physical beings, sexual intercourse for humans is fundamentally different than it is for animals.
The nature of the physical and spiritual union between two human persons is profound—it is meant complementarily to fulfill what is lacking in each, and it is designed to be lifelong. Because of this, any sexual act outside of holy marriage is inherently destructive to both parties involved, no matter their having consented to it. Because of the Church’s frank, loving concern for the well-being of all the faithful, Christian teaching on human sexuality simply cannot change—again, it is not a matter of enforcing a codex of laws, but about seeking what is eternally good and healthy for the human person.
Because of our fallen nature, there are human persons who are either born with, or develop through experiences and environmental factors, misdirected sexual desires. The Church’s response, yet again, is to lovingly embrace every human person in his or her brokenness. Any acting out that leads to physical or spiritual trauma could clearly not be blessed—how can the applauding of self-destruction ever be a loving act?—nevertheless, Christians who struggle to realize their sexuality in a healthy manner are loved and guided by the ascetic and spiritual life of the Church.
Just as humans in our fallenness can be born with—or develop—misdirected impulses of various kinds, so too with addiction to abuse of alcohol, illegal drugs, and other controlled substances. The negative effects of substance abuse on the body and psyche are well-known outside of Christianity; the Church’s concern is both for the material wellbeing of the human person, as well as the spiritual.
Addictive behavior not only damages the human person physically and mentally, but reliance on any addictive pattern (this could include behavioral addiction, such as compulsive shopping or gambling) masks underlying issues and reveals something more dangerous: if the source of a human person’s comfort and joy are not ultimately seated in Christ, then this cycle will continue in a downward spiral. Human nature is oriented God-ward, and these addictive behaviors are a misdirection of the God-centered desire. Because what we really long for is communion with our infinite God, we will never be satisfied with the limited, finite pleasures and distractions we can have here. If we do not reorient ourselves to God, however, we will seek more and more to gorge ourselves on the addictions of this world, mistakenly thinking that our emptiness will be filled if we just consume more of it. If we radically change our orientation back to God where it belongs, however, we will know peace and joy as our true desire is fulfilled in Him.
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Polycarp the Holy Martyr & Bishop of Smyrna; Proterios, Archbishop of Alexandria; Gorgonia the Righteous, sister of Gregory the Theologian; Damian the New Martyr of Mount Athos; Boswell, Abbot of Melrose Abbey