Embrace the Human

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Embracing Our Humanity / Published Date:26 November 2018/Last Updated Date:5 March 2021


God’s embrace of creation and humanity was from the first moment of Creation, as the two Creation stories in Genesis 1 & 2 attest. God looked at Creation, including the creation of a man and a woman and said “it was good.” God’s embrace of humanity was “summed up” when the Word became Flesh (Jn. 1:14), as Justin Martyr and St Ireneas teach us. It was a “recapitulation” of God’s engagement with us and our humanity in all its richness and complexity.

As we read in Gaudium et Spes, there is no joy or sadness, doubt or certainty, tragedy or hope that fails to find an echo in the heart of believers.

This is why La Civilità Cattolica has decided to gather into one volume some reflections published between 2017 and 2018. Today more than ever we need to embrace the human, that is, our humanity, our personal life, the life of our neighbors, and the challenges of history.

La Civilta Cattolica

The first step we want to make is tied to a reflection on reason and emotion. These are often considered to be in opposition to each other, not only by common opinion, but also in psychological and philosophical studies, for they are seen to be incompatible with the rigor and the scientific nature of these disciplines.

Yet advances in the studies of philosophy and psychology have come to recognize more and more the profound ties that unite cognition and emotion. After a presentation and clarification of terms, we seek to show the motivations at the basis of this mutual exclusion and its likely consequences, especially concerning life choices. If emotions left to themselves can lead to superficial or destructive decisions for the self and for others, a level of instruction cannot necessarily be identified with the ability to lead a good and wholesome life. The ever-complex challenge is that of putting these two into dialogue so that they may enlighten each other. And so at this point we will analyze sadness, happiness and doubt.

Sadness, with its cluster of synonyms eluding precise differentiation, is certainly not a desirable or attractive emotion. After the Second World War, efforts were made to eliminate a sadness, replacing it with a vision of existence marked by perfect serenity. We look at the efforts and costs of such exclusion and highlight in particular the importance of this feeling for a healthy and full life under a human and spiritual profile. Sadness, in fact, is a part of life and helps us grasp the richness of life’s meanings. In particular, it is not opposed to joy but makes it possible, for it represents its specular face, as night does the day, carrying important lessons in living well.

Happiness is difficult to define precisely: it refers to a vast array of synonyms that are open to different meanings and interpretations. At the same time it is familiar to people of every age and culture; they can recognize its presence immediately. We show here some of its basic characteristics: gratuity, the link with a transcendent perspective, and nostalgia for a wholeness that is never fully attainable in this life. Its proof is in its progressive disappearance during modernity – due to the lack of interest in what goes beyond the empirical and technical field of existence – and finally the return to psychological research, offering anew the importance of community life, relationships that are affectively important, and commitment lived out freely.

Doubt can be considered as the typical state of modern people. Since Descartes we have learnt to doubt everything, putting up for discussion all that we had received, to be able to give our assent to what is clear and distinct. Such certainty, however, far from imposing itself, has gradually moved further and further away from our speculative and affective horizons, leaving us as prisoners of doubt. However, does doubt only have a negative quality? Is it something we have to refute at any cost? Would it be ideal never to have any doubts and possess the monolithic certainty of finding ourselves in the right? We look at some consequences showing the need for doubt, even for the life of faith. Counselling those who are living in doubt is a work of spiritual mercy widely witnessed since the beginnings of Christianity. But let us be clear so as not to be misunderstood: it is not a technique to be learnt, a strategy of persuasion, but something essentially tied to knowledge and a spiritual journey.

It is impossible to elude one important theme when speaking of life and humanity: death and dying. We start with the message of Pope Francis to the World Medical Association (WMA), which provoked different interpretations, some of them contrasting. The pontiff confirmed his “no” to euthanasia and to “overzealous therapy.” But he has written with a new tone about the “dutiful” suspension of disproportionate care and the central place of the judgement of the sick person. Countering every form of abandonment, he insists on “responsible closeness” and palliative cures. In conclusion, he labels “therapeutic inequality” as an injustice that end-of-life decisions must consider, and the need to seek shared solutions – even legal ones – in democratic society.

Our volume concludes with two reflections on discernment. Pope Francis often affirms that the Church needs to grow in discernment, in ability to discern. But what, effectively, is discernment? Above all, it is a process and not a mathematical method to find an answer. The process can be helped by three concrete steps. The first is the discovery of those impediments that undermine this gift, which is so propitious for the spirit and enriching for all. The second is that of consolidating some general criteria that help us appreciate what is at stake when choices are made. The third step is a short presentation of the originality and valid help that the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius offer to those who desire to enter into a process of discernment or to accompany others along this path.

As we know, our lives are a journey. In turn, this volume is a journey through our human experience, and a guide to make this journey in a way that is fully human and fully Christian.