The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
February 6, 2019
I am honored to deliver this Hispanic Innovators of the Faith Lecture.
I have chosen a theme to reflect on today that has deep roots in the Hispanic experience in the Americas.
Although it is often overlooked, the Spanish missionaries made important contributions to the humanist tradition in the West. I am thinking about the Dominicans, Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolomé de las Casas, the Franciscan St. Junípero Serra, and the great bishop of Michoacán, the Servant of God Vasco de Quiroga, among others.
In arguing for the humanity and rights of indigenous peoples, these missionaries deepened our understanding of the Incarnation and its implications, helping us to realize the sanctity and transcendent destiny of every human life made in God’s image and redeemed in Jesus Christ.
In his famous Advent sermon in 1511, Montesinos denounced the colonialists for abusing the natives in their ruthless pursuit of gold. Five hundred years later, his words are worth remembering:
Tell me, by what right or justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? … And what care do you take that they should be instructed in religion? Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourself?[i]
I invoke these Hispanic innovators of the faith because each of them confronted a historic challenge to the definition and meaning of the human person.
I believe we face a similar challenge in our own day. In many ways, Montesinos’ questions are with us again: What does it mean to be human? What are the obligations that we have toward our neighbors? Where is God and Jesus Christ in all of this?
That is what I want to reflect on today — the “crisis of man” in our times, the loss of the meaning of the human person.
I come at these questions, not as an historian or scholar, but as a pastor of souls. And as a pastor, I am worried about the directions our society is taking. I think our way of life is making it harder for people to find God and to know the meaning of their lives.
I want to try to understand why and what that means.
“The Crisis of Man”
Let me begin by clarifying the terms I am using.
By “crisis of man,” I mean a crisis of human nature. Men and women. All of us.
And the crisis I see today is this: In our society, we no longer seem to share any coherent or common understanding about what it means to be a human being. As I see it, this problem is rooted in our society’s broader loss of the awareness of God.
If the questions are: Who are we? Why are we here? And what should we be living for? I don’t think we know the answers anymore.
We can see this most obviously in the growing prevalence of abortion and contraception and euthanasia in our society and throughout the West, in the radical new experiments we are making with the genome and the human embryo. And of course, we see it in the new slavery of human trafficking.
Just in the past month, three state legislatures took up the question of whether abortion should be allowed — not only right up to the moment of birth, but even after the baby has been born. This is an extreme example of our moral confusion about the status of the human person.
But I think we also see this crisis reflected in other areas that might not be so immediately obvious — for instance, in the clashes of identity politics and the persistence of racist thinking in our society.
We see it reflected in the worldwide debates over migrants and refugees; in the widespread confusion about gender and human sexuality; and in the dramatic decline in birthrates throughout the West. I would even argue that this crisis underlies the opioid epidemic and the alarming rates of mental illness, loneliness, and suicide in our country.
It is way beyond what we have time for today, for me to try to make all these connections. Instead I want to examine how we got to this point.
People have been talking about a “crisis of man” since at least the end of the Second World War.
We forget that in the last century, millions were killed, whole generations lost — in Soviet gulags and Nazi death camps, in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in genocides in nearly every part of the world.
Out of this dark time of slaughter and suffering, came new existential questions. Not only about the “silence” of God, but also about man’s inhumanity to man.
What had the human person become? Was there some hidden darkness in the human spirit that caused us to commit such horrible deeds, to annihilate entire populations, to go to such elaborate lengths to humiliate and destroy our fellow men and women?
I think it is important to remember that much of the devastation in the last century was the product of atheist humanisms that turned into murderous ideologies.
Leaders from Stalin to Mao and later Pol Pot, sought to throw off the “burden” of God and create “a new man,” free from the limitations imposed by religious authority. This was Hitler’s aim, too. National Socialism, he once wrote, “is more even than a religion: it is the will to create mankind anew.”[ii]
De-Christianization and De-Sacralization
I think in many ways, we are still living with unhealed spiritual wounds from this period of our recent history.
Today the atheist humanisms have faded. But the project of the global leadership class to create a world without God and transform the human person according to political and economic dictates — this project is still very much alive.
In this country and throughout the West, believers now confront the “soft” persecution of those who want to drive out whatever Christian influences remain in our political and economic life.
Just recently, questions were raised about judicial nominees who belong to the Knights of Columbus. We see ongoing lawsuits aimed at Christian companies and charities, trying to force them to operate in ways that violate their conscience.
That is why the U.S. bishops have made defending religious liberty a key priority. If we are not free to order our lives and institutions according to God’s Word, then we are not free to live a truly human life.
But I want to talk today about a more subtle threat to the human person — in the growing “disenchantment” and “de-sacralization” of our society.
I think it is obvious to all of us that we live now in a highly secularized society that has no need for God. For all intents and purposes, we live as if God does not exist.
We think we do not need God to help us run the economy or the government. We can plan and engineer everything for ourselves. We are totally self-sufficient. We think we can rely on politics or science and technology to solve every problem and answer every question.
And we have become very good at engineering our lives. With our medicine and technology we can now control the very life forces — who is born and when that occurs. We can plan and control when and how we die.
But the loss of God comes with even deeper consequences. We are living now in a society that makes individual “well-being” its only aim, a society that has no higher purpose than to produce goods to satisfy our personal appetites for security, pleasure and entertainment.
Whether we realize it or not, we are drinking — all of us — from the spirit of our age. Which is the spirit of science and technology, the spirit of practical reason applied to turning the raw material of nature into something we can use or sell.
Reason is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. But reason was never meant to be separated from faith. Reason was never meant to be opposed to our search for the truth about God and the truth about who we are. But that is what has happened — our society no longer accepts that reason can help us to find God.
And slowly this is changing us, often in ways we cannot perceive.
I worry, my friends, that we are becoming prisoners of the “positivism” of our age. We have accepted a way of life that defines what is real and true as only what we can verify with our senses or confirm through scientific experiments.
That rules out any possibility that we can know God or that God can make any authoritative claims on our life. Why? Because our society says that we cannot “see” God or “prove” that he exists, scientifically.
In the same way, our society no longer believes in the existence of permanent or universal values like beauty or truth. As a result, statements about how we should live or what makes for a “good life” are treated as irrational beliefs, private opinions, or mere personal preference.
The end result of this way of thinking — is the degrading of the human person.
We are losing our religious dimension, the sacred character of our personality — the truth that we are spiritual creatures made in God’s image, born with an inner desire to seek truth and transcendence, a desire that God alone can satisfy.
A Crisis of the Incarnation
My friends, as I see it, the crisis of the human person is a crisis of the Incarnation.
Every age has its heresies. Pope Francis has singled out the return of Pelagianism and Gnosticism in our day. He is right about that. We can see these heresies playing out in many areas of our personal, political and economic life.
But the heresy that underlies all others is the rejection of the Incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The Incarnation, as we know, is the central mystery of our faith. It is God the Father’s love revealed in the redemptive coming of Jesus Christ — the Second Person in the Blessed Trinity. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he took human flesh in the immaculate womb of the ever-Virgin Mary, who is the Spouse of the Spirit and the Mother of God.
In his Incarnation, Jesus Christ assumed a human nature, a rational soul and a human body, and his divine and human natures were perfectly united in his person, so that he is true God and true Man, the only begotten Son of God and the true Son of Mary.
Jesus Christ did all this — to bring us salvation, making it possible for humanity to participate in the mystery of God’s life of love.
This is the beautiful truth of the Incarnation. It is God’s definitive revelation of who he is and who we are as his creatures — the divine potential we have as the creatures made in the imago Dei, in the image of God.
In the famous words of the Second Vatican Council, the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”[iii] But the Council also warned: “When God is forgotten … the creature itself grows unintelligible.”[iv]
And that is what has happened, as I see it. Our society has forgotten God. It no longer believes that God has revealed himself in Jesus. It no longer believes in the divinity of Jesus — he is just another man; an interesting philosopher, perhaps, but only a man.
It is beyond the scope of this talk, but the belief in the Incarnation, as it was worked out in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, shaped our civilization in the West — in the arts, in literature, in science and philosophy, and crucially, in our understanding of the human person and government.[v]
That is why the rejection of the Incarnation is having such profound consequences. Already we see a humanism without God emerging that is becoming more and more inhumane. We are coming to see, that if we are not made in the image of God, we can be remade in the image of those who appoint themselves as “gods.”
We see this in the destruction and manipulation of human embryos, in the now-common abortion of children diagnosed with Down Syndrome. We see this also in some of the ways the global economy works — where from sweat shops to human trafficking, the weak are used as instruments to serve the powerful.
The secular age has been a long time coming and there are many contributing factors. But in many ways, the heresy of our age is as old as creation.
Sometimes, I think we are living out the serpent’s original temptation in the garden — the temptation to resent God, to doubt his loving intentions for us; the temptation to want be gods ourselves, masters of our own destiny, deciding for ourselves what is good and evil. I also think we may be replaying the story of Babel, the story of humankind’s first attempt to try to use reason and technology to build a civilization without God.
Toward a New Humanism
These are the sober realities that we see when we read the signs of the times. But for the Christian, reality always includes the promise of God, the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. God never leaves us without hope, even in what seem to be the darkest times!
The Church exists to bear witness to the hope that is in us, to evangelize with gentleness and reverence. Evangelizing is the only task that Jesus Christ gave to his Church. The crisis of man and the globalization of technical civilization — this complicates our mission. But it does not change it.
We need to examine the challenges of our historical moment — social and spiritual, political and economic — and we need to look for new ways, new strategies to propose the Gospel in this society that has closed itself off from God and denied the spiritual character of the human person.
I have tried to begin that examination in this talk today. What remains is to suggest a way forward for the Church in her mission.
Always in the Church, renewal and reform means returning to the source. That means returning to Jesus Christ, true God and true man — who by his person and mission, his life, death and resurrection, brings salvation. We need to proclaim boldly that Jesus Christ reveals the human face of God and that in his face we see reflected the glory that God intends for our lives.
To explain the Incarnation, the first Christians often used what we would call today “slogans.” Here are three that are the most important. And they should be key concepts in all our preaching and teaching:
“God became man so that we might become God.” (St. Athanasisus)
“To all who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1:12)
“The glory of God is the human person fully alive in Jesus Christ.” (St. Irenaeus)
For the first Christians, these were not just pretty sayings. They expressed the truth that Jesus Christ revealed and the lived experience of those whose lives he touched.
Mario Vittorino, a philosopher and convert in the fourth century, said: “When I encountered Christ, I discovered my true humanity.”[vi]
The mystery of the Incarnation contains a profound humanism — rooted in our “deification” and “divine filiation.” In Jesus Christ, we discover that our human life has a divine vocation, our humanity is made to be “divinized,” to share in God’s own nature. In Jesus Christ, we discover that we are born to be “re-born” — as God’s children, his own beloved sons and daughters.
From the beginning, the imitation of Jesus Christ has been the basic form of Christian living and spirituality. Jesus called us to follow him — to think with his mind, to love with his heart, to live by his words. St. Paul said simply, “I imitate Christ.”
In this imitation of Jesus Christ, we realize the fullness of our humanity — walking in his footsteps, living the mysteries of his life, truly taking him as the way and the truth for our lives.
The goal of imitating Christ is to “become Jesus,” to know his presence within us. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” St. Paul said.
We need to reclaim this heroic Christianity of the saints, of living deeply the mysteries of Jesus Christ. This is the power that comes to us through the Incarnation.
Because Christ humbled himself to share in our humanity, we now have this amazing possibility of sharing in his divinity. Because Christ is the perfect image of God and the perfect image of a man, by grace we can share in his perfection; we can be holy as he is holy.
The truth of the Incarnation is the truth that we are called to holiness, to live for the glory of God, to be saints in the midst of our ordinary lives.
Friends, this is the beautiful vision of the human person that we are called to proclaim in our time.
The new evangelization calls for a new humanism — built on the truth of the Incarnation, the truth of the human person as the imago Dei.
The task of this new humanism means renewing our theology and exegesis, deepening our understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation. It means going deeper in our Christology and Mariology, and in our Christian anthropology. It also means philosophical renewal — thinking in new ways about metaphysics and epistemology and the crucial relationships of faith and reason and truth and freedom.
But above all, my friends, we need to return to the project that St. John Paul II set before us at beginning of the third millennium — to set everything we do in the Church in the context of holiness.
We need to recover the awareness that we are created by the holy and living God and this God invites us to be holy as he is holy, which means to love as he loves. We need to recover the awareness that seeking holiness is the ordinary measure of what it means to follow Jesus.
This project begins with us. With you and me. We cannot evangelize unless we are first evangelized. We need to be witnesses and models of this new humanism — living the beautiful truth we proclaim, becoming the saints we are called to be.
For Greater Things
Let me close briefly, as I began, by invoking a Hispanic innovator of the faith. She is not widely known, but she should be — Venerable Maria Luisa of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
They called her “Mother Luisita” and she was a contemplative Carmelite who served the poorest of the poor in Mexico in the 1920s. She was driven underground and then into exile during the bloody persecution of the Church there, the most violent religious persecution that has ever been endured in the Americas. She came to Los Angeles in 1927, along with thousands of refugees from Mexico.
Out of the violence carried out in the name of an atheist humanism, Mother Luisita called us to live as saints in everyday life, relying on the loving Providence of God and with our hearts open to the sufferings of the poor and forgotten.
She used to tell people: “For greater things you were born.” In this short and beautiful expression, we have the truth of the Incarnation. And this is the truth about our lives.
Friends, there is a hidden despair lurking just beneath the shiny surfaces of our consumer culture. As much as we try to distract and amuse ourselves, as much as we try to dull our senses through consumption and entertainment, people know something is missing.
We know that in the end, our science cannot save us, our technology cannot redeem us. The happiness that consumer society promises does not last; it is in constant need of recharging through relentless novelty.
Only Jesus Christ can provide for our deepest longings — to love and to be loved; to live with joy and confidence; to face death without fear.
We need to make this message the heart of the new evangelization. The way forward leads back to the source, to the beautiful truth of the Incarnation.
Thank you for this opportunity to work out some of these ideas. I look forward to our conversation.
[i]Quoted in Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (Little, Brown, 1965 ).
[ii] Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933—1973 (Princeton, 2015), 6.
[iii]Gaudium et Spes, 22.
[iv]Gaudium et Spes, 36.
[v] Patricia Ranft, How the Doctrine of the Incarnation Shaped Western Culture (Lexington, 2012).
[vi] Antonio López, Enlightening the Mystery of Man: Gaudium et Spes Fifty Years Later (Humanum, 2018), 48, n. 4.