The vocation of a chicken

Chesterton has an essay, “On Running after One’s Hat,” where he says that if the wind blows your cap off, make a game out of running to get it back, or if there’s a flood in your town, get into a boat, pop open a bottle of wine, and pretend that you’re vacationing in Venice. He’s not recommending that we make light of tragedy, but that we lighten it -- along the line of “whistle while you work” or “make a virtue of a necessity.”

In the same spirit I would propose that instead of grumbling about misinterpretations of Vatican II, busted reforms, the “spirit of Vatican II,” “liberal theologians,” and all that -- as some faithful Catholics have been known to do -- why not get some laughs out of it? I suggest a party game, where people guess and try to fill in the blank: “The most neglected teaching of Vatican II is ...”

This could be lots of fun. There are many contenders. Some partygoers will insist that by far the most neglected teaching is that, “the Church is hierarchical.” Others, that “the Eucharist is the summit and source of the interior life.” Some devoted souls insist that it’s “devotion to Mary as Mother of the Church.” Others again might plump for “the true role of the laity is to place earthly realities in the service to God.”

My own personal favorite would be the anthropology (or teaching about “man” -- human beings) of the council. I’d love to argue for this candidate, because at first everyone will laugh and suppose that of course I must be wrong. Didn’t John Paul II spend most of his pontificate teaching about “man,” and “theology of the body,” and the “dignity of the human person,” and human rights? In his first encyclical, “Redemptor hominis,” he even announced that in the wake of Vatican II “man is the way of the Church.”

But I’d say in reply that surely the anthropology has been neglected, because its fundamental premise has been almost completely ignored.

At this point, people might scratch their heads and stare, because they wouldn’t have a clue what that fundamental premise is -- and then I’d point out to them that their very hesitation is already evidence of my point.

Then I’d let them in on the secret, by quoting a passage from John Paul II where he gives two equivalent formulations, “man is the highpoint of the whole order of creation in the visible world; the human race, which takes its origin from the calling into existence of man and woman, crowns the whole work of creation” (“Mulieris dignitatem,” 6).

This is equivalent to “man is in the image of God” and also “man is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself” (“Gaudium et Spes,” 24).

To those who objected that of course these doctrines have been widely appreciated, I’d point out that they haven’t at all, because of the neglect of that crucial word, “only.” To say that man is the “only creature” on earth willed for his own sake, is to deny that any other creature is.

We don’t like the word “only,” because it seems exclusive, and yet any doctrine involving “only” is grasped only by those who specifically use that word. “There is only one God” is not grasped by a polytheist who agrees that there is at least one god. That only a man and a woman can be married is not grasped by those who affirm only that a man and a woman can get married.

Because only man is “willed for his own sake” -- that is, other creatures are not -- man is “the highpoint of the whole order of visible creation.” The visible world exists for man, not man for the visible world.

This bold anthropocentrism of Vatican II has generally been not simply ignored but even denied among Catholics.

In one obvious sense we don’t deny it. Every time a Catholic family gathers around a simple chicken dinner they implicitly testify to that truth. It makes sense to slaughter and eat a chicken only if the chicken exists for man -- only if, as is clearly true, the highest vocation to which a chicken could possibly aspire is to serve as a family’s Sunday dinner. (As if living out its life and dying stupidly in some chicken coop -- for what purpose? -- would be fulfillment for a chicken!)

Yet we do deny it, because of environmentalism. We think that to say that man is the highpoint of creation is to give license to man to ravage the environment.

But that is a dangerously false misconception. As evidence, consider that former communist countries, which denied “man as the image of God,” were horrible abusers of the natural environment.

Also, if man is just one animal among others, why shouldn’t he proliferate and destroy without limit? Bacteria proliferate in a man until they overcome and destroy both the man and themselves -- why shouldn’t men do the same to the earth? There could be no moral law against it.

On the other hand, if we boldly declare that the earth is for man (“the human family”), we provide both a sound basis for sustainability (take care of the earth, for future generations) and a strong argument against exploitation (which always benefits only some men, not others).

And we won’t make the potentially murderous mistake of favoring the environment over man.

Michael Pakaluk is a Professor of Philosophy at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Va.