Claire V. McCusker’s treatment of Bodies: The Exhibition may be the best defense that can be constructed for it from within the Catholic moral tradition, but McCusker reaches her conclusions, I think, only by unwittingly departing from that tradition in important respects, both in her understanding of hylomorphism and in the moral conclusions she draws from that understanding.
Relying on Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory as incorporated into Catholic doctrine, McCusker says that the soul is the form of the body and concludes that a dead body, since it is separated from its soul, is not a person. True enough, but it does not follow that dead bodies "aren’t bodies in any meaningful sense." That statement could seem plausible only to someone who has been subjected to a good deal of philosophical conditioning; it conflicts sharply with common usage and collides head-on with the Nicene Creed, which asserts that Christ was buried in the tomb. Note that we say Christ was buried, not just his body. In fact, although hylomorphism entails that a dead body is not a person, it also entails¯and this is clear in the tradition¯that a dead body is a part of a person. The same, incidentally, is true of a disembodied soul¯it’s not a person either, but it is a part of one. This has some important moral implications, to which I shall return below.
McCusker concedes that the exhibition fails to treat dead human bodies "as bearers of human dignity," but, she says, "seeing as bodies aren’t human beings, that attitude seems, frankly, wholly appropriate." The argument here is that dignity belongs to the human person, and since dead bodies are not persons, they lack the dignity of the human person and so have no moral claim on us. That this argument proves too much should be clear: It would entail that disembodied souls, since they, too, are not persons, likewise have no moral claim on us. Moreover, the argument overlooks quite a bit in the Catholic tradition, not least the story of Tobit’s burying the dead and St. Paul’s famous statement that you must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Even the current Catechism is explicit on this point: "The human body shares in the dignity of ‘the image of God’ " (no. 364).
What’s gone wrong here, in addition to exaggerating the implications of hylomorphism, is that McCusker leaves the notion of the dignity of the human person unanalyzed. This is a common source of trouble, for the concept can be explicated in quite different ways, and just how one understands it has a large effect on what conclusions follow. Thus we sometimes find contending parties, both appealing to the notion of human dignity, arguing for contradictory conclusions. The American bishops, for example, say that abortion is incompatible with the dignity of the human person, but Ronald Dworkin says that it is prohibiting abortion that is thus incompatible. They are both right, of course, given their respective¯and radically different¯understandings of human dignity.
In the Catholic tradition, morality (and thus human dignity) has generally been understood as arising from the final end for human beings. This is obvious in Augustine and Aquinas, and although a good deal less clear about it than they were, John Paul II is in essential agreement. Human beings, he says, have "their own purpose. . . . There is no way to acknowledge the dignity of the human being without taking this purpose and its thoroughly spiritual character into account" ("The Dignity of the Human Person" in Karol Wojtyla, Person and Community: Selected Essays, at 179). That purpose, or final end, arises from the fact that the human being is a definite kind of thing, a rational animal, fit by nature to serve a certain kind of end¯the knowing and loving of God. In such a moral theory, actions are morally good if they are ordered to that end, morally bad otherwise. See the first eighteen questions in the Prima Secundae of Summa Theologiae .
Now dead bodies, because they are not human beings, are not, properly speaking, ordered to the final end of human nature. But when a complex whole has an end, the parts of that whole have the natures they do in order that they may function in the whole so that the whole may attain its end. In a certain limited sense, therefore, the parts of the whole are themselves ordered to the end of the whole. (Think of how the parts of a machine are ordered to the end of the whole machine.) Hence, although a human body is not itself ordered to the final end of human nature, it is still importantly related to that end. It is related to it as an essential part of a whole that is ordered to that end.
For this reason, we should treat human bodies with respect, that is, in a manner compatible with the end to which, albeit as parts of wholes, they are naturally ordered. Because dead bodies are not human beings, their claims on us are not absolute; with a good enough reason related to the final end, we may do a great many unpleasant things with human bodies. Medical research to save human lives and advance knowledge is the obvious example, but even cannibalizing the dead, if the circumstances are extreme enough, is presumably permissible. In all this, however, we ought to treat human bodies in a manner compatible with the end to which, albeit as parts of wholes, they are naturally ordered. We may not treat dead bodies in just any which way we please.
McCusker is simply wrong, therefore, when she says that when we bury the dead, "we do it not out of respect for their bodies . . . but out of respect for the people they used to be (and perhaps still are)." Certainly not still are, for, as I noted above, disembodied souls are not persons in the hylomorphic theory, and it would be passing mysterious if we had to treat with respect something that is not a person for the sake of a person who does not exist. No, in the Catholic tradition, as an essential part of a whole ordered to the final end for human beings, the body itself has a claim in its own right on our moral concern. This is what the Catechism means when it says that the human body shares in the dignity of the image of God.
And this brings me back to Bodies: The Exhibition . This outrageous spectacle does not, in any serious way, advance human knowledge. It is, rather, a form of popular entertainment, and the thrill that most people get from it (McCusker thinks too kindly of most people and so probably misses this) is base. The exhibition panders to a morbid curiosity akin to the impulse to stare at a car wreck. Such desires, which theologians have traditionally called the concupiscence of the eyes, ought be stifled, not excited and gratified. Such gratification, which is the real motivation behind Bodies , is surely inadequate to justify skinning human bodies and arranging them in action poses for anyone willing to pay $25 to gawk at.
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